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Government fears unitary districts will be too small and too costly...
Government fears unitary districts will be too small and too costly

By Nick Golding

District councils are in danger of failing in their bids to gain unitary status amid indications the government believes they are too small to go it alone.

The population of districts such as Oxford, Ipswich, Norwich, Preston and Cambridge falls way short of the threshold likely to be required to win ministerial approval.

This leaves only a handful of counties, including Durham and Shropshire, and possibly Northumberland, Cumbria and Cornwall, fighting to convince ministers that they can overcome the costs of restructuring sufficiently promptly to avoid council tax rises.

A senior Department for Communities & Local Government source told LGC that only 'a very small number' of councils would be allowed to proceed with unitary plans.

The likelihood of unitary status is being further undermined by Treasury pressure to keep costs down as it prepares for next year's comprehensive spending review. DCLG sources are clear that any short term restructuring costs must be repaid through savings in just a few years - not 10 or 20.

Communities and local government secretary Ruth Kelly gave lukewarm support for restructuring at last month's Local Government Association conference where she announced she would 'not stand in the way' of councils wanting change - but only if they could prove local support and guarantee future efficiency.

Urban districts, many of them outposts of Labour representation in Conservative-dominated counties, could be left pinning their hopes on their councillors and MPs convincing ministers that Labour's interests would be best be served by their being given unitary status. But so far, this pressure does not appear to be paying off.

At least one member of a delegation of MPs representing districts with unitary ambitions who met Ms Kelly last week was pessimistic.

Norwich North MP, Dr Ian Gibson (Lab), said: 'Their eyes did not seem to light up. We had a meeting with Ruth Kelly recently and she listened but that was about it. [Her predecessor] David Miliband was much more interested.'

Dr Gibson admitted doubts had previously been raised as to whether the city - with a population of 126,000 - was big enough to become a unitary. He is one of many calling for Norwich City Council, which has a Labour minority administration, to merge with Broadland DC - a suggestion regarded with scepticism by the latter which is Conservative controlled.

Norwich councillor Alan Waters (Lab), who is also a policy analyst at the Local Government Information Unit, said: 'We've seen figures for a population ranging up to 400,000 and down to 250,000 or 180,000 - these are numbers that are being floated by a variety of [departmental] sources informally.'

He added: 'We've the impression that these aren't fixed figures but there's a view that you are looking at a larger population than current districts.'

Oxford City Council chief executive Caroline Bull said the council was working to make the case that its short-term reorganisation costs would be offset by long-term savings but it was awaiting the local government white paper to reveal exactly what financial criteria a prospective unitary must satisfy.

Counties, although they have larger populations, are also by no means certain to win ministerial support. Many await the white paper to clarify whether permission will only be given if district councils acquiesce in their own demise.

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