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Letter: Why Do We Have a Two-tier Structure in Local Government?

Published on: 29 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 28 Jul, 2020

From: Paul Kennedy

Liberal Democrat Parliamentary spokesperson for Mole Valley

A few days ago, a Conservative county councillor and I spoke to a local Scout group about our different roles on Surrey County Council and Mole Valley District Council. It was a good evening with challenging questions for both of us.

As part of my research and to understand how our separate functions were first determined, I looked at the Government White Paper in 1971 which led to the Local Government Act 1972 and the creation of the present system of county and borough or district councils.

The previous Labour government had been planning to introduce a system of unitary authorities in rural as well as urban areas, but the incoming Conservative government under Edward Heath had campaigned against this, and the new minister, Peter Walker, introduced a two-tier system instead. Here is what the White Paper said:

“There are advantages of simplicity and intelligibility in making the structure of local government uniform throughout the country. But no one structure can be suitable equally for the densely and the sparsely populated areas.

“Concentrating authority for all services in one authority has … advantages and makes for coherence in administration. But it carries the grave penalty that if some areas are suitable for some services they are too large for others.

“In the government’s view, there will always be conflicts between those who argue for large-scale organisation on grounds of efficiency and those, on the other hand, who argue for control by a body close to the people for whom the service is designed.

“The government obviously must seek efficiency, but where the arguments are evenly balanced their judgement will be given in favour of responsibility being exercised at the more local level.

“The government therefore intend that the reorganised system should everywhere be based on two forms of operational authorities … some [functions] need wider areas of administration, while others are best dealt with by authorities more closely in touch with local conditions.

“The government … will establish a new pattern of areas within which the major services can be administered and developed in the future; by retaining important responsibilities at the more local level, too, they will give powers of decision and action to those who will be immediately affected.”

From Brexit to local democracy, the present Government is busy dismantling the legacy of the Heath government. I suspect Jacob Rees-Mogg would like to reverse decimalisation too. But it is worth recalling the reasons why an earlier Conservative Government introduced the two-tier system nearly 50 years ago.

Borough and district councils retain just 9-11% of our council taxes (Surrey takes 75-77% and the police 14%), so there is little scope for improving value for money without asset-stripping local community assets. And the majority of borough and district councillors do their job in their spare time, which enables them to be drawn from and remain part of their local communities.

Supporters of a new monster authority for the whole of Surrey claim local democracy can be retained through more parish and town councils, and community boards where the new super-councillors can hold court.

But the reality of abolishing borough and district councils is that all their functions would be concentrated into a unitary Surrey-wide authority composed of large electoral divisions using a non-proportional voting system. All the key decisions that affect us locally would be taken by a new breed of full-time professional politicians more accountable to their party bosses than to the local people they serve.

The suggestion by Mole Valley’s Conservative MP that a county-wide unitary authority should simply be imposed on the people of Surrey without consultation, or even against our wishes, is particularly chilling, as is his suggestion that planning is better undertaken centrally to overcome “local nimbyism”, a particular worry here in Mole Valley as we seek to develop a revised local plan which defends our green belt against arbitrary government housing targets.

One wonders why he wants to stop at Surrey, and not just hand all local government decisions over to the Secretary of State.

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test 4 Responses to Letter: Why Do We Have a Two-tier Structure in Local Government?

  1. Colin Cross Reply

    July 29, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Paul Kennedy’s excellent summary reveals this attempted power grab for what it really is, a cynical manoeuvre by desperate Tories to make a last gasp attempt to shore up their rapidly disappearing Surrey hegemony.

    Surely the answer is not to hand more power to Surrey County Council, who are proven money wasters and unable to run our local education and care programmes at a satisfactory level.

    Why not dismantle the SCC model and replace it with two or three “super boroughs”, each with three or four geographically related former borough or district councils? Then, together, they can form countywide subcommittees to jointly manage their education and highways programmes, leaving the three bodies to individually control their more localised responsibilities.

    Returning power to the people of Surrey in this way would not only prove to be of massive financial and infrastructure benefit but would crush the underlying Tory ambitions towards the long-term political takeover of Surrey.

    I write this in my private capacity as a former management consultant and not as a GBC councillor.

  2. David Middleton Reply

    July 29, 2020 at 11:44 am

    Agreed. The current system isn’t perfect, but I personally don’t feel comfortable with more power being vested in a “Greater Surrey Council”. The recent debacle over the beauty spot car park charging shows how easily an authority, remote from its electorate, can get things badly wrong and how difficult it is to hold those responsible for the waste of public funds to account.

  3. Martin Elliott Reply

    July 29, 2020 at 1:56 pm

    Nobody has mentioned the need, if there is one, for Local or Joint Committees under SCC, comprised of county and borough or district councillors.

    Then also there are parish councils, with their financial precepts, but town areas are not all covered by this lowest tier.

    How many tiers of local government should we have?

  4. John Perkins Reply

    July 29, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    I would like to thank Mr Kennedy. I thought his analysis was very good.

    A look at the SCC election statistics for 2017 shows that the Conservative party won nearly three-quarters of the seats with less than half the vote. Just as they used to do in Guildford. It’s no wonder they hope to regain their hegemony by removing the troublesome boroughs.

    County wards are approximately five times the size of those of the boroughs and therefore less responsive to the electorate.

    I say again: scrap SCC rather than the boroughs. Perhaps its duties could be managed by the joint committees already in place?

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