Unitary councils were created to secure huge efficiency savings, but how realistic does that goal look in a severe economic downturn.
The advent of nine unitary councils serving three million people across England has heralded the biggest shake-up of local government in 30 years.
The scrapping of 44 county and district councils was meant to save money, improve services and enhance local leadership. And with three-fifths of England now served by unitary councils, this latest wave of reform was also intended to set a new benchmark for local government.
According to local government minister John Healey, the successful bidders made the case that residents would be better served under single-tier local government.
“The test will be, services improving, delivered better, more simply, with local people having more say over what happens,” he said. “The judge in the end will be those residents they are there to serve.”
But already doubts are being raised about the new bodies’ viability. The business case for each was anchored on an ambitious programme of efficiency savings - savings that in the current economic climate will be harder than ever to achieve.
While opponents of the new unitaries were appeased with promises of one-stop shops and area committees to ensure local voices would continue to be heard, there are concerns that these mechanisms will be watered down or quietly dropped as the organisations get down to business.
In Northumberland, where the former county and six districts have been dissolved into a single unitary, the council is being forced to fi nd a total of £210m in savings over the next four years, eclipsing the£17m of annual effi ciencies expected to come from reorganisation itself.
However, chief executive Steve Stewart is upbeat about the prospects for the new organisation. “It’s just that the world has changed so much since the bids were put in,” he says.
“The difficulty is in the overall local government finance situation, which is making life difficult for everybody. Like any other local authority, we will have a hard time for the next few years.”
The decision to go unitary will make savings easier to achieve, although they will still be tough, he says. “Going unitary does allow us to get effi ciencies we wouldn’t otherwise have got,” he says.
He believes that local people now recognise the need for single-tier government, even though the plan had attracted significant hostility. “Most people accept that it’s happening,” he says.
“One or two don’t, and would like to turn the clock back. When people see the benefits of unitary governance they will appreciate the possibilities.”
But former Alnwick District Council councillor Gordon Castle, who is now a member of Northumberland Council’s Conservative & Independent Group, says it will be “a very great challenge” for the 67 members of the new unitary to do the job of the 319 councillors they are replacing.
“There will be a democratic deficit, there is no doubt about that,” he says. “We have to come to terms with a real reduction in representation, especially in rural areas.”
He is sceptical about plans to use member-led area committees, together with community forums, to address that deficit. “We’ll see what can be devolved [to area committees], which at the moment is not a great deal,” he says.
“If community forums can’t spend money they’re at best just a talking shop, and at worst interfering bodies causing confl ict with parish councils.”
The new council faces an uphill struggle to prove its worth, says Cllr Castle. “Over the next few years, meeting the expectations of government will be extremely hard,” he says.
“There will be a period of disruption and uncertainty, and the question is whether it’s worth all that disruption for what’s achieved.”
“In the first year we reckoned on [savings of] £6.5m and we’ve actually got £8.5m. And costs are running at £375,000 less than the £17m that had been predicted,” she says.
Two years of preparation had allowed the former county and districts to manage the reduction required in the workforce, putting in place agency staff and short-term contracts to reduce the bill for redundancies, she says.
Initial public opposition to the unitary council has been eased through an intensive programme of roadshows and public meetings. “The mood of residents in Wiltshire is very different,” she says.
“In 18 months people have gone from saying ‘Don’t you dare take away my local council’ to ‘I can understand why, but there’s still a question mark over it and you have to prove it works’.”
But Manjeet Gill, chief executive of the former Salisbury District Council, warns that the advantages of a unitary Wiltshire could be undermined by the loss of local democracy, especially in the rural south.
“The headquarters will be in the north rather than the centre of the area, so you have to make sure the voice of the south will be represented,” she says.
On top of that, the new council may struggle to provide the closeness of contact with local communities traditionally provided by the districts. “Changing the culture to one of more community engagement will be one of the biggest challenges,” she says.
However, Cllr Scott argues that, far from the new council being more remote from the people it serves, it will bring the entirety of local government closer. People will be able to access services formerly provided by the county and district councils from local hubs located in district offices.
They will also be able to influence decisions through 17 local executive boards.
“Rural issues will be addressed better than under four districts and one county,” she says.
“District councils are classed as local, but they only deliver 20% of services. The county needed to get more local.”
According to Bedford Borough Council chief executive Shaun Field, it is much easier for a district council, and especially one with an elected mayor, to win public backing for unitary status.
His council, together with neighbouring Central Bedfordshire Council, covers the area previously served by Bedfordshire County Council and three districts. “There is no doubt the local populace and businesses were right behind the borough’s bid,” he says.
“Everyone knows we have a directly elected mayor and the common view is: why aren’t they in charge of everything? People could see that across the county there were four chief executives and four directors of finance, and they could see the argument for savings.”
So how realistic do those savings look in the current financial climate? The council is counting on savings of £9.9m this year, based on a council tax increase of 0.9%, but Mr Field says some of the efficiencies will be hidden by the higher costs and reduced income the council now faces.
Bedford estimates it will lose £400,000 in revenue from the reduction in interest rates alone. “We will still make the savings, but you won’t notice them as much,” he says.
He believes that Bedford, in its transition from high-performing district to unitary council, is a model for how reorganisation should be done. “You don’t have everyone holding the steering wheel,” he says.
Whatever the route, it appears the die is now cast for the future of local government.
Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, says the latest wave confirms the government’s determination to bring in ever-larger all-purpose units of government.
“For central government, efficiency is the only overriding real criterion for deciding local government boundaries. Local identity counts for much less,” he says.
“As authorities get bigger and bigger, the links between local identity and local government get weaker and weaker.”
The inevitable end point will be regional units of government with little or no connection to local communities, he says. But public resistance to remote government has been diminished by successive rounds of reorganisation. “People are used to, having local authorities with headquarters 40 or 50 miles away,” he says.
The challenges facing the latest wave of unitary councils are the greatest yet, and the performance of the new councils will be closely monitored by their counterparts elsewhere which, for now at least, remain two-tier.
In the face of growing public indifference, the momentum for change may prove unstoppable.