District councils have said that moves to create county-scale unitary authorities would be “the greatest act of municipal vandalism in living memory”.
The District Councils Network (DCN) made this claim after Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick this week invited councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset to submit unitary reorganisation proposals.
According to DCN this would mean local government there “would cease to exist”, and bring neither better nor cheaper services.
It published a report Bigger is Not Better, the Case for Keeping ‘Local’ Government, by De Montfort University’s Professor Colin Copus, Professor Steve Leach, and associate Professor Alistair Jones, which said the search for an ideal sized council was a pointless equivalent of the “search for the Philosopher’s Stone”.
The report found that English councils were already the largest in the western world, and creating even larger cones would risk fuelling public distrust in government by watering down their voice on local services.
Larger councils were not necessarily more efficient, the report argued, and risked delivering less responsive services through remote bureaucracies similar in size to some small countries and US states.
South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller, DCN chair, said: “Covid-19 has shown that bigger or cheaper local government is not better local government, and as this revealing report shows, larger councils would wipe local government as we know it off the map altogether.
“Devolution has to be about decisions being taken at the level closest to the people affected by those decisions, not centralising them into administrations with populations way over a million people, and across geographies almost as large as Northern Ireland.
“Right now, in the midst of an international health and economic crisis, we must be focused on recovery, not reorganisation.”
Mr Jenrick invited proposals from the three counties but insisted, as have previous ministers, that he does not intend to impose any reorganisation on areas that do not want it.
He told Parliament: “Councils in these areas have requested such invitations and have been developing ideas about restructuring local government in their areas for some time. It is right that they should now have the opportunity to take their local discussions to a conclusion, and if they wish, make proposals for unitary reform.
“There is thus no question of any top down imposition of Government solutions. We are clear that any reform of an area’s local government, where there is strong local support for the principle of a unitary structure, is most effectively achieved through locally led proposals put forward by those who best know the area.”
Mr Jenrick did though hint that there Government’s preferred sizes for new unitary councils might be relaxed.
He said: ”Whilst traditionally various population ranges for unitary councils, such as 300,000 to 600,000 populations, have been referred to, regard must be had to the particular circumstances of a proposed unitary council; including issues of local identity, local geography, delivery of public services and economies of scale when assessing population size.”
Hertfordshire County Council leader David Williams, who chairs the County Councils Network, said: “Our research with PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year showed that there is a compelling case supporting their proposals for the establishment of single unitary authorities in their areas, with this model maximising the financial and economic benefits of reform, while retaining local identity across credible geographies.”
Buckinghamshire because a county unitary this year, as did Dorset last year though with Christchurch detached into a new council with Bournemouth and Poole.
An earlier round of county unitaries under the Labour government saw county unitaries created in Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire.