Fringe Box



Letter: Beware of the Call for a County Based Unitary Authority

Published on: 9 Jul, 2023
Updated on: 9 Jul, 2023

Map showing some of the areas of England governed locally by unitary authorities.

From: Bernard Quoroll

In response to: The System Is Simply Not Working

I have worked as the chief executive of a large district council within the so-called two-tier system and of two councils – a London Borough and a unitary county council.

Mr Creese is right in suggesting that unitary councils generally work better in achieving some economies of scale and in reducing confusion about accountability for services but that is not by any means the whole story.

Counties tend to be too large to connect meaningfully with local communities and in my experience are far more distant from and less sensitive to more local needs. They also pay larger salaries to more senior people than districts and are not therefore as cheap to run as they typically assert. They are certainly, in my view, much less accountable to the people they serve.

Local government took the biggest financial hit post-2008 and has continued to do so, losing a third of its resources and leading to crazy investment schemes and a raft of bankrupt councils searching for get-rich-quick schemes to balance their books. Woking, Slough, Northamptonshire, Croydon are just the tip of an iceberg. There are many more bankruptcies in waiting.

Another response has been for districts to share chief executives and management teams [as at Guildford & Waverley Borough Councils] in a lame attempt to spread the butter more thinly and reduce management costs. But that only works as a short-term measure.

Chief officers cannot do justice to the needs of their communities in two and a half days of the working week. Councils are much more than agencies for delivering bespoke services. They are supposed to be the living hearts of the communities they serve and that is not a function that should be performed part-time. Each council’s culture is unique to itself as should be its managerial and political leadership.

The solution is to build unitary councils which are typically smaller than counties but larger than most district councils today. Doing so provides a better balance between efficiency, accountability and community responsiveness. It also creates more “space” for parish councils which have a valuable role to play at the most local level. There is however no perfect structure because every place is different.

But beware, central government does not see things that way. For central governments, big is beautiful. It enables them to exert more control and reduces the number of bothersome agencies it needs to deal with.

In places like Surrey, it provides an opportunity to consolidate political control and is, in my view, deeply unhealthy if you believe in local democracy. It can even amount to gerrymandering.

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Responses to Letter: Beware of the Call for a County Based Unitary Authority

  1. H Trevor Jones Reply

    July 9, 2023 at 3:26 pm

    I have just read both Bernard Quoroll’s and Brian Crease’s comments and I share Brian’s interest in public transport which, as I’ve argued before, needs to be organised at a level higher than local boroughs or unitary authorities because of the cross-border travel, e.g. in the 2021 SCC elections when unitaries were in the discussions – I’ve just checked my old emails.

    We don’t want one unitary subsidising a bus to the border in the middle of nowhere if the next authority doesn’t support the onwards journey. I don’t have strong views on other things like education, libraries, rubbish collection, where maybe unitaries would work best.

    But if we could make Transport for SE England (TfSE) a statutory body for transport, with local accountability via representatives from elected bodies, then maybe that would satisfy me. I suspect that cross-border issues between adjacent regional bodies would be less critical than between adjacent unitary bodies.

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