A golden chance for reform

By Cllr David Fothergill and Cllr Carl Les and Cllr Stewart Young | 16 November 2020

Seasoned readers of The MJ will be aware of the many discussions on reorganisation that have been rumbling on during the summer.

Now, thankfully, after much to-ing and fro-ing, the Government has given both the district and county councils in three of our great counties a golden opportunity to enact genuine reform.

In inviting proposals for reorganisation, there is a recognition from ministers that there is a clear consensus for change in Cumbria, Somerset and North Yorkshire.

While some question the timing, we say that we don’t face a false choice between recovery and reform: they are two sides of the same coin.

Over recent weeks, our three counties have shown they have the capacity to remain fully focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic, while developing detailed business cases.

It is no coincidence that we have all emphasised the word ‘one’ in our respective bids.

That’s because we believe the greatest reform is achieved when we take the best of the district and county councils in each of our areas and create lean yet modern authorities well equipped for the challenges ahead.

Our proposals are, of course, individually unique and tailored to our areas. But the evidence supporting our collective aim towards a single county unitary model is as compelling as the risk of taking an alternative approach is stark. It is clear that a single unitary council provides by far the largest amount of savings and offers the lowest payback period to minimise the cost on local taxpayers.

Our own local cost-benefits analyses are backed up by a PwC report which showed that a single unitary would deliver double the yearly savings compared to splitting counties in two by reducing the cost of establishing the new council by almost half (47%).

Councils across the country are struggling with the impact of the pandemic on their budgets, and we simply cannot afford to settle for any option that does not deliver a level of savings that can truly protect vital local services.

But we also must look beyond the bottom line to the impact on services and the economy.

Differing proposals which could create two new councils in each of our areas would split adults and children’s social care departments, fragmenting staff, resources, and service models that have taken years to develop and protect the most vulnerable.

As we emerge from coronavirus and grapple with the increased demand for these services the question is simple: does the Government preserve and enhance high quality, efficient services, or higher costs and greater complexity?

The same would apply to large-scale departments such as transport and infrastructure and whether we run the risk of creating an economic divide between low growth and high growth parts of our counties.

This is hugely important: it would be an enormous risk, exacerbated by coronavirus, to potentially split our counties into areas covering lopsided economies where one side of the county does well, while the other is trapped in a low-growth cycle without the economies of scale to address the problem.

In contrast, research by the County Councils’ Network and others has shown that a single county unitary does not just avoid these risks, it provides real opportunity to improve care services and drive forward a true integration agenda with local health partners.

A single unitary council would have the necessary size to support local economies and businesses across rural and urban areas to recover from the pandemic – giving us the tools to reimagine and redesign our economies and a clear point of contact for enterprise.

It would provide the platform to create a renewed place-shaping role, set over geographical scale to strategically manage the delivery of new housing and infrastructure, levelling up our communities in the process.

These benefits will not come at a cost to democracy and representation.

Counties as diverse as Durham to Wiltshire and Cornwall to Northumberland have shown how new unitary councils covering a mix of rural villages, towns and cities can bring services and local decision making closer to residents and create the impetus for town and parish councils to flourish.

Reorganisation might not be for everyone, but we believe it is right for our areas and our residents.

A single county unitary for each of our areas is the best option on the table: reducing duplication and confusion for taxpayers, providing a clear voice for the whole county, and allowing us to set united and unanimous visions in huge agendas from housing to climate change.

Cllr David Fothergill is leader of Somerset CC, Cllr Carl Les is leader of North Yorkshire CC, and Cllr Stewart Young is leader of Cumbria CC

@DJAFothergill @stewartyoung058

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