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Letter: Cllr Furniss’ Idea Of Unitary is Really a Smash-and-Grab Raid on Our Democracy

Published on: 7 Aug, 2020
Updated on: 7 Aug, 2020

From: George Potter

Lib Dem borough councillor for Burpham

In response to: A Single Unitary for Surrey is the Best Option for Guildford Residents

Cllr Matt Furniss’s letter on the purported benefits of single county-wide unitary for Guildford’s residents appears rather remarkable in its distinctly limited relationship with either the facts or the truth.

Let’s get one thing clear, no one is arguing there are no benefits to unitary authorities in principle. As Lib Dems, we are pro-unitary authorities, but they must be done fairly and to the enrichment of the lives of local residents, not as cumbersome behemoths.

There are benefits to public accountability from simplifying two tiers into one, and doing so certainly has the potential (at least on paper) to create savings from joining up services more efficiently. What people are disputing is the idea that a single unitary authority for a county of 1.2 million people is the best possible model for the future of Surrey.

But before we get into the argument about the merits of different unitary authority models, there are several claims in Cllr Furniss’s letter which are misleading at best. For instance, he neglects to mention that of the £1,959 council tax bill paid by a typical Band D household in Guildford, a whopping 76% goes to the county council and a further 13% to the police, leaving just £177 for Guildford Borough Council to pay for its public services.

But, despite the £1 billion budget of which Cllr Furniss boasts, we still see Surrey County Council coming cap in hand to borough and district councils to help pay for services SCC is meant to be paying for itself. This is what he really means when he talks about “joint projects”.

Personally, I wouldn’t object to GBC picking up the slack, but if that’s going to become a matter of routine then SCC should stop collecting council tax for services it is unwilling to provide.

More egregious than this is that SCC, and its Tory administration, of which Cllr Furniss is a leading member, has proved itself to be institutionally incompetent and spendthrift at running the services for which it has responsibility.

Cllr Furniss mentions SCC responsibilities such as the fire service. But Surrey Fire and Rescue was rated “inadequate” by inspectors just two years ago and the SCC response has been to axe 70 firefighters as well as seven fire engines at night.

He mentions children’s services, twice rated as “inadequate” by Ofsted (to which the response of the SCC director of Children’s Services at the time was, “I’m not that bothered about Ofsted”) and by closing children centres across the borough, including the one in Cllr Furniss’s own ward.

He mentions waste disposal, where SCC provoked outrage just last year by closing several recycling centres, and recreation where SCC managed to waste £300,000 installing parking charges at Newlands Corner only to U-turn when the income raised by them was just £61,000 although SCC had been counting on an incredible £200,000.

Notably, he does not mention social services, where SCC took the brilliant decision, less than a decade ago, to sell off all of its care homes to developers, so taxpayer money now goes to pay for the shareholder dividends of private care home providers.

Oddly enough, Cllr Furniss also fails to mention that the SCC senior officers wage bill has jumped by £10 million in just the past year alone as well as the millions of pounds being spent on consultants, including the £500,000 already spent by SCC on its “business case” for absorbing all the district and borough councils in Surrey.

And last, but not least, let’s not forget the toxic time-bomb of Surrey’s £425 million property investment portfolio. SCC borrowed hundreds of millions of pounds to “invest” and ploughed most of it into risky retail property, in spite of the warnings sounded by opposition councillors at the time. Now the bottom’s fallen out of the market and the time has come to pay the piper.

Could this, perchance, be part of why SCC is so keen to absorb the borough and district councils, many of which, such as Guildford, have much sounder finances?

It’s hard to think of any other reason which could possibly motivate this attempt to move to a single unitary authority. Time and time again, the government has stated that unitary authorities should have populations between 300,000 to 700,000 people and the optimal size appears to be around the 400,000 mark. Given the SCC proposal would be almost twice the size of that upper limit, their plan clearly can’t be motivated by government guidance.

What about making a decision based on a rational analysis to determine which option makes the most sense for the taxpayer and communities?

But that can’t explain it either, given that SCC didn’t even talk to borough and district council leaders before announcing they believe a single unitary authority is the best way forward although their leader, Tim Oliver, had apparently told Surrey’s MPs that all the district and borough councils were in favour of a single unitary.

Is the proposal driven by what the residents of Surrey want?

Hardly, or the county council would have a) consulted residents about their plans and b) wouldn’t be trying to rush the changes through quickly enough to be able to cancel next year’s county council elections.

Whether residents from places as diverse as Haslemere, on the Sussex border in the south, and from Staines, on the other side of the Thames and in what used to be Middlesex in the north, want to be run by a single, remote, unaccountable super-council based out of Kingston, which isn’t even in the county, is extremely doubtful.

The only vaguely plausible argument for a single unitary authority for the whole of Surrey is that there are some public services which may be best delivered at the county level, yet there’s no reason why we couldn’t split Surrey into three unitary authorities to follow Northamptonshire’s example where, despite a move to unitary authorities, operations such as children’s services are still run as a single county-wide service.

So what are the actual reasons for this unitary authority plot? Unfortunately, the only logical reasons appear to be a Tory desire to postpone the reckoning with the taxpayer voters at next year’s elections (out of fear of a repeat of last year’s elections which drove the Tories from power across Surrey) and to make up for years of financial mismanagement at county hall with an attempt to loot the reserves, assets, staff and tax bases of our much more competently run district and borough councils.

To see Cllr Furniss desperately trying to defend this attempted political smash-and-grab raid on local democracy is deeply disappointing, a sad comedown for a man once rumoured to see himself as a future Prime Minister.

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Responses to Letter: Cllr Furniss’ Idea Of Unitary is Really a Smash-and-Grab Raid on Our Democracy

  1. Colin Cross Reply

    August 7, 2020 at 4:31 pm

    Game, set and match to Cllr Potter, I believe.

    I would advise Cllr Furniss not to attempt a reply as there is more where that came from, I am sure.

    Colin Cross is the R4GV borough councillor for Lovelace (Ripley, Wisley and Ockham).

  2. Jo Komisarczuk Reply

    August 8, 2020 at 12:55 am

    Hear, hear. I just hope that all of us with the right to vote see this attempt to remove democracy from the residents of Surrey for what it is and remove Surrey County Council and its personnel from power.

    • Jules Cranwell Reply

      August 10, 2020 at 9:55 am

      I would agree with this, had we experienced any democracy, openness or transparency from Guildford council over the past 10 years.

      The majority made it abundantly clear that it did not want the destruction of greenbelt and countryside which would result from the proposed Local Plan.

      The Tories and now the Lib Dems went ahead with it anyway, and continue to defend it, in spite of the tens of thousands of objections.

      Where is the democracy in that?

  3. Mike Forster Reply

    August 9, 2020 at 11:03 am

    Cllr Potter has made a good case against unitary authority and surely the main reason the SCC are promoting this is political to try and stem the defection from the Tory party in our county.

    People’s views matter and I fear that a unitary system would only reduce these to our disadvantage.

  4. John Perkins Reply

    August 9, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    In his excellent riposte to the plans of Cllrs Furniss and Oliver, Cllr Potter does not make a case against unitary authorities. On the contrary, he specifically states his support for them and only opposes an over-large authority which the Tory party hopes to dominate.

    I sincerely wish that Furniss does respond, if only so that his views can be exposed to scrutiny and debate.

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