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County Council’s Tory Leader Tells Whitehall of Plan for Single Authority Rule

Published on: 17 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 17 Jul, 2020

Letter from Tim Oliver To the Secretary of State regarding his proposal for Surrey to become a Unitary Authority

Surrey County Council leader Tim Oliver has written to Whitehall, outlining his case for a single unitary authority, one council for the whole county. That would scrap the existing county council as well as the 11 borough and district councils.

The government intends to publish a Recovery and Devolution White Paper in the autumn, setting out its plans to increase the number of unitary and combined authorities and elected Mayors.

Cllr Oliver (Con, Weybridge) said in a report to fellow councillors: “Given the new and growing challenges faced by Surrey, even before Covid-19, this presents a significant opportunity to better organise local government and local accountability and engagement with residents in Surrey, in a more effective and financially sustainable manner.

“Doing so will support the achievement of the 2030 Community Vision for Surrey as a uniquely special place, where enabling long-term inclusive growth and tackling the inequalities that continue to exist in the county ensures everyone has a great start to life, people live healthy and fulfilling lives, are enabled to achieve their full potential and no one is left behind.”

But opposition councillors at county and borough/district levels are more than unhappy. At Guildford Borough Council, well-placed sources say leader Caroline Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) was told of Cllr Oliver’s intent to make a public statement on the proposal at a county council meeting only on July 7, the day before it happened.

The Liberal Democrats and Labour parties favour the division of the county into several unitary authorities and Independent groups including Residents for Guildford and Villages are wondering if this will remove the power they gained at borough level only last year.

If a single unitary authority is formed, parish and town councils would probably have to take on more responsibilities but parish and town councillors get no allowances for their work. Previous calls for Guildford to have a town council, like Farnham and Godalming, have been resisted.

Cllr Tim Oliver

In Cllr Oliver’s letter to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, he says: “We could do so much more, better and at less cost, if we transform the current system of local government in Surrey (12 sovereign local authorities, in a two-tier structure).

“It is too fragmented and complicated. I believe a single unitary council, underpinned with a flourishing new model of local accountability would be more effective, efficient and resilient in addressing the current challenges, better serving our residents and taxpayers.

“A new model would also maximise the potential of the county going forward. Surrey’s economy has been a significant contributor to the Exchequer, contributing £40.4bn to the UK economy every year.

“…We can build more homes more quickly and develop the high streets and town centres of the future, but to do this we need to streamline decision-making on planning and infrastructure with a single clear strategic approach. We can tackle inequality and level up within Surrey to ensure inclusive growth. We can reach net-zero carbon emissions and deliver a greener future.

“Our One Surrey Growth Board is well-placed to provide the place-oriented leadership and strategic co-ordination to deliver this. Surrey’s relative overall wealth, however, masks pockets of deprivation in the county, with widening inequalities. As examples, West Surrey contributed £28.1bn GVA (70%) to the Exchequer in 2017, while East Surrey contributed just £12.3b (30%) and linked to this, 70% of the jobs and 67% of businesses are in West Surrey.

“…If we are to genuinely ‘level up’ within Surrey, then a single unitary is the only viable model for local government reform. I have discussed my ambitions with the Surrey MPs who agree that change is needed and can see the benefits of a unitary structure in Surrey.”

The Dragon has invited comment from the four Conservative MPs whose constituencies overlap Guildford Borough:

Sir Paul Beresford MP

Sir Paul Beresford MP for Mole Valley

1. Are you, in principle in favour of unitary authorities as the best form of local government?

“Absolutely. I have seen the benefits first hand from when the Thatcher government introduced unitary authorities in London.”

2. Why is the change necessary (if you think it is) what advantages do you think it offers?

“There are huge advantages. The efficiency gains, which in turn will become financial gains for local taxpayers, have been clearly observed in most of the local authorities in London after they became unitary authorities [UAs].

“Moreover, we will move from a situation where co-operation between district and county is uneven, disjointed and slow to a new approach where all services are fully integrated, and even combined where appropriate.

“From the point of view of the local residents, the confusing and sometimes arbitrary demarcation between services will disappear. They will be able to contact just one local authority for all council enquiries and services.

“There is a potential for difficulty when it comes to achieving sufficient distance on planning and planning related issues. I believe this can be overcome by utilising parish councils and town forums, which may have to increase in number. Ultimately, a UA would be a benefit for planning as future planning decisions would be made centrally, where factors other than local nimbyism will be considered.”

3. Is a single unitary authority for the whole of Surrey (making it twice the size of any existing example in England) the best option?

“Emphatically, yes. Surrey has a population of nearly 1.2 million. A number of UAs covering metropolitan areas serve much greater populations. Sheffield nearly 1.6 million, Birmingham 2.6 million, in Manchester 2.5 million. It is worth noting that when London introduced UAs, some of the benefit was lost because the new authorities were too small.

“If we end up with two UAs in Surrey, we will experience the same diminished return. I am also concerned that if we divide on a north/south or west/east basis the result would be, either way, one more prosperous UA and another which was, relatively speaking, notably less so.”

4. How do you think the change would affect the speed of housing developments in Surrey?

“It should improve both the speed of housing development and the rational consideration of sites and site plans. See answer 3.”

5. How should the residents of Surrey be consulted on the proposal?

“If I recall correctly, the decision on unitary authorities in London was taken by the elected government of the day without consultation. I believe that the benefits of this change are so self-evident, it should be made without any unnecessary delay.”

6. If the consultation shows residents are not in favour of the change or not in favour of one single authority should it still go ahead?

“See answer 5.”

Jonathan Lord MP Photo: Chris McAndrew, UK Parliament

Jonathan Lord, the MP for Woking, also responded but did not answer each question individually. He said: “There are significant potential advantages to having a single unitary authority, but there are significant potential disadvantages too.

“I have been listening carefully to the arguments of Tim Oliver and he puts his case well, but I now also want to hear the views and arguments of my residents and of all my local councillors, county, borough and parish, here in Woking constituency.

“Only when I have weighed up all those arguments will I take a firm view and take a lead on behalf of that view.“

No responses were received from Angela Richardson, MP for Guildford or Michael Gove, MP for Surrey Heath.

Following is Cllr Oliver’s letter in full…

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Responses to County Council’s Tory Leader Tells Whitehall of Plan for Single Authority Rule

  1. Keith Francis Reply

    July 17, 2020 at 10:01 pm

    Is Sir Paul Beresford referring to Wandsworth Borough Council? If so a Partner where I worked was chairman of that council and for having a zero-rate Community Charge he received a gong from Mrs Thatcher.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    July 18, 2020 at 6:48 am

    If it means that the Tory Local Plan for Guildford will cease to exist if there is no GBC, then I’m all for it.

  3. John Cooke Reply

    July 19, 2020 at 10:02 am

    When Woking Borough Council’s eye-watering investment in retail and high rise housing proves to be a huge mistake, it will be the new single unitarian authority that is left with the bill.

  4. Jeremy Oliver Reply

    July 19, 2020 at 4:01 pm

    Woking is only third on the list in terms of retail investment. Take a look at Spelthorne and Runnymede:

    It’s all borrowed money for property speculation. Is this a good time to share (or socialise) the damage or risk across the prudent boroughs?

  5. Linda Cooper Reply

    July 24, 2020 at 6:06 pm

    I live in a village with no infrastructure and hugh council tax charges in south west Surrey on the border of West Sussex, can our village join West Sussex instead?

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