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Grassroots Campaign to Fight SCC ‘Power-Grab’ Plan For Single Unitary Authority

Published on: 4 Sep, 2020
Updated on: 7 Sep, 2020

By Martin Giles

A new campaign has been launched against Surrey County Council’s proposal to scrap all 11 borough and district councils and turn itself into a single unitary authority. The Residents Against Surrey Single Unitary (RASSU) wants to force debate at SCC and prevent the “destruction of local democracy”.

The campaigners call the plan by SCC leader Tim Oliver (Con, Weybridge) a “cynical power-grab by Conservatives concerned by the rising popularity and influence of independent residents’ groups across Surrey”.

The move is also facing opposition from district, borough and parish council leaders as well as community groups.

RASSU, aligned with independent resident groups and parties such as Residents for Guildford and Villages, suspects if the proposal is pushed through, next year’s county council elections, at which they hoped to make gains, would be cancelled.

The group has started a petition listing the plan’s disadvantages as:

  • Loss of local decision-making and a dilution of democracy. Only a handful of councillors would represent the residents of each borough on a remote council, with issues lost in the vast agenda of a unitary authority representing some 1.2 million people;
  • Surrendering total control to SCC, which has a well-documented history of consistent failure to provide good services or value for money;
  • The transfer to SCC control of borough assets worth several £100 million; and
  • Creation of a body three times the maximum 400,000-population size the government recommends for a unitary authority.

Hannah Dalton, a campaign leader, said: “The proposal by the government and Cllr Oliver to remove local decision-making and services from local people through the creation of a monstrous authority is the destruction of our local democracy built over hundreds of years.

“This is a once in a lifetime decision which will affect every one of the 1.2 million residents of Surrey. The county council are attempting to implement this via the backdoor within weeks, with no mandate and their plans submitted to the government by the end of September.

“This is before they have even commenced public consultation.

“It seems they have no intention of a transparent process which would allow the people of Surrey decide the future of local services in their area.

“There should be proper time given for any consideration of changing the democratic system in Surrey, and above all the people of Surrey should decide, not the leader of SCC in collusion with central government.”

Cllr Julie Iles

But county Cllr Julie Iles (Con, The Horsleys), a cabinet member at Kingston, said: “The government is publishing a Devolution White Paper and we have an opportunity to create a better system of government for Surrey.

“There is no power-grab. One new council will preserve the best of the districts and boroughs while giving more accountability through local communities.

“Any division of the county would create unequal areas, split up county-wide services and prevent a levelling of opportunity and wealth. A report from Price Waterhouse Cooper points to savings not being realised if county services are split across two or more unitary authorities.

“It’s disappointing to see a campaign based on mistruths [sic]. For example, had RASSU read the Ofsted papers properly they would see the inspectors report sufficient progress in four out of five areas relevant to Special Education Needs and Disabilities. Surrey residents should engage in our public consultation on the proposal.

“I will not be signing their petition.”

But not every one of her Conservative colleagues is convinced. All the borough and district councils, including the three under Conservative control, have joined to seek an alternative solution.

Cllr Mark Brett-Warburton

Conservative county Cllr Mark Brett-Warburton, who represents Guildford South East, said: “There are benefits to a single authority from the point of view of governance and cost-saving, particularly as we all eventually move on from this extraordinary Covid-19 crisis and have to collectively face the cost.

“But, any change to local government must not result in a reduction in democracy for residents. This will come down to the detail of the proposals. I think the ideas have to be put out there for debate and I intend to listen to what local people want to do and represent their wishes. That is why I became a councillor.”

Cllr Paul Spooner

GBC Cllr Paul Spooner (Ind Con, Ash South & Tongham), who sought the Conservative nomination for the Ash seat at SCC before leading a breakaway from the borough’s official Conservative group, was keeping his powder dry. “My personal position has not changed. I await details of the White Paper and keep an open mind on the value of various models of devolution.

“As a group, we are concerned about a single unitary for Surrey and await further evidence supporting options.”

Cllr Caroline Reeves

GBC leader Caroline Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) said: “Unfortunately, the RASSU campaign doesn’t offer any alternative to the single unitary so it is difficult for the Lib Dems to support it. While we do support a unitary authority we cannot support creating the whole of Surrey as one single unitary authority.

“The residents and businesses would not have the level of representation they deserve and there will be too few councillors per head of population.

“As leader at GBC, I am working with all borough and district leaders to oppose a single unitary. We have put aside political differences to argue for the best solution for our residents and businesses.”

Brian Creese

Brian Creese, for the Guildford Labour Party, said: “We agree with R4GV that the Tory plan to create one monster unitary is a cynical power-grab and any plans to postpone next year’s local elections is completely unacceptable.

“We are delighted the local residents’ groups around Surrey recognise the Conservative council’s plans for what they are, and that a mega-unitary authority is not going to be a solution.

“And we are not clear exactly what system of local government they are favouring. There is no doubt the government will force changes on the county and that the old system is doomed. We look forward to campaigners joining with Labour groups around the county in advocating a North, East and West structure for the future of Surrey.”

The BBC’s new Local Democracy reporter, Julie Armstrong, reports that Waverley Borough Council’s leader, John Ward (Farnham Residents, Farnham Shortheath and Boundstone), has denounced the SCC proposal as “a disaster” and “a power-grab that should be resisted at all costs”.

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Responses to Grassroots Campaign to Fight SCC ‘Power-Grab’ Plan For Single Unitary Authority

  1. Kerry Mulligan Reply

    September 5, 2020 at 5:19 pm

    Cllr Iles’ reaction says a lot. When a direct link to an Ofsted report is described as “mistruth” the fragile ego of the regime is exposed for all to see. If Ms Iles has a problem with the truthfulness of the report which rated SCC “Inadequate” in 2018 she should take it up with Ofsted before her Whitehall masters abolish the regulator along with anyone else who dares speak out.

    • Julie Iles Reply

      September 7, 2020 at 2:40 pm

      This extract from the RASSU leaflet is inaccurate: “…with the Quality Commission’s critical report, published in May 2019, outlining the failings in Special Education Needs and Disabilities, and in Surrey’s Youth Offending Services, with the HMI Report published in August 2019 rating them ‘inadequate’”

      It lumps everything together and the Ofsted report from May 2019 reported sufficient progress in 4 out of 5 areas from the written statement of action for SEND.

      The public should be given accurate information.

      Julie Iles is the Conservative county councillor for The Horsleys.

  2. Helen Manning Reply

    September 5, 2020 at 7:01 pm

    I am totally against this idea.

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