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SCC Leader’s Bid For One Unitary Authority Torpedoed By Shock Government U-Turn

Published on: 18 Sep, 2020
Updated on: 19 Sep, 2020

Council leader Tim Oliver and Secretary of State Robert Jenrick

By Martin Giles

In yet another screeching Downing Street U-turn, county council leader Tim Oliver’s power bid for a single Surrey unitary authority has been torpedoed via Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick.

The Secretary relayed the message that No 10 was not prepared to move further on local government restructuring as part of the devolution White Paper, due in the Autumn.

Yesterday, an obviously frustrated Cllr Oliver (Con, Weybridge) had to break the news to fellow Surrey Conservatives in an email that betrayed flashes of irritation. One sentence read: “I have asked Jenrick to confirm what the position is regarding Surrey and we are asking some of [our] MPs to find out but as far as I am concerned this kills our bid.

“We need to progress … the whole local engagement and empowerment piece and I am discussing how we work that with the local Conservative group leaders.”

He added: “I will confirm the position for definite if or when Jenrick answers my letter but quite why this government keeps starting fires and then walking away I really don’t know. Disappointing.”

Cllr Oliver had launched his unitary authority bid in anticipation of the White Paper, a shock move that stirred deep anger among the county’s 11 borough and district councils that would have been wiped out.

Amid comments that included “power-grab”, all council leaders formed a group to challenge the plan, chaired by Nick Prescot, the Conservative leader of Runnymede Borough Council.

Cllr Caroline Reeves

Guildford Borough Council leader Caroline Reeves said: “My main reaction is anger that council taxpayer money has been spent by Surrey County Council promoting a single unitary for all residents without consultation with borough and district leaders or the people.

“A huge amount of time has been wasted in discussions about how as leaders we can put together a more realistic proposal to effect the necessary changes needed to save money, which in itself is shameful at a time of deep concern over the pandemic.”

Cllr Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) added: “Frankly, I am disappointed that a leader could be so wilful in assuming his proposal could go ahead unchallenged and, sadly, I am not surprised at the very skewed ‘consultation’ already started by SCC.

“I am pleased all borough and district leaders have been so united in our opposition to the proposal. We agreed change is needed, but not in this counter-productive way.”

Conservative county councillor Mark Brett-Warburton (Christchurch & Holy Trinity) was more sanguine. He said: “To the best of my knowledge, no specific proposals had been pushed by government in the first place, so it seems unfair to label their stated position regarding the devolution White Paper as a U-turn.

“As we eventually head into recovery from this extraordinary global Covid-19 crisis, it is right that we consider all aspects of how we can govern ourselves more efficiently, but I always saw any proposals at this stage as the start of a dialogue, not a commitment to any one form of governance structure.

“This is something that affects all people in Surrey and needs proper consideration. I think this is what is reflected in the government’s stated position.”

Cllr Joss Bigmore

But GBC deputy leader Joss Bigmore (R4GV, Christchurch) was angry: “I’m not surprised, pleased or disappointed. I’m disgusted. We are the middle of a pandemic, facing untold economic uncertainty and SCC have spent vast amounts of time and money on a politically driven vanity project.

“How dare they waste our money, alongside councillor and officer time which should have been spent tackling the myriad of real issues we face. I see the blame game has already started with Robert Jenrick the alleged fall guy. Shameful.”

Cllr Paul Spooner

And GBC’s Cllr Paul Spooner (Ind Con, Ash South & Tongham), added: “I have been replaced on the Surrey Conservative Group Leaders Board as of a few days ago by Nigel Manning, by direction of the party at his request.

“Therefore I am no longer in the loop within Surrey Conservatives on the status of devolution discussions among group leaders, but given the level of concern raised by members of all political parties and all the lobbying, I would not be surprised if the government takes more time to consider the consequences before releasing the White Paper.

“As someone who has long supported the principle of unitaries for our region, I would be disappointed if the lid was closed on devolution locally.”

Cllr Fiona White

County Cllr Fiona White (Lib Dem, Guildford West), said: “At a time when all councils are overstretched trying to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and plans for Brexit at the end of this year, the government proposed changing our two-tier system of councils to create large unitary authorities.

“Surrey County Council put a lot of time, effort and taxpayer money into planning a single unitary authority across the whole of Surrey. The county’s borough and district councils have been putting together alternative proposals based on smaller unitary authorities.

“All that money and energy has been wasted by yet another government U-turn. It is good to know they respond to pressure but surely they should consult first before so many resources are wasted.

“Let us have no more diversionary tactics from this government. Council staff have already been working their socks off to support communities as far as possible. None of us know what Brexit will bring until we know whether a deal is possible or whether we face a no-deal situation.

“Dealing with the pandemic and planning for Brexit are what councils and councillors should be concentrating on, along with the essential day job of working for our communities.”

Brian Creese

Surprised Guildford Labour chair Brian Creese said: “The shock news today from the Guildford Dragon represents yet another U-turn from this extraordinarily incompetent government. I almost (but only almost) feel sorry for Tory leaders like Tim Oliver who need to present some sort of coherent position in response to constantly changing policies.

“Clearly, Downing Street’s commitment to local government reform was pretty thin and almost certainly based purely on how much money they thought could be saved. This is a wasted opportunity to look at our local democracy which is very important to all of us, but which rarely gets any serious political attention.

“Surrey Labour parties will not be changing their focus on creating three new unitaries to provide more transparent, effective and efficient local government for Surrey.“

Cllr Oliver has agreed to be interviewed by The Dragon on Monday.

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Responses to SCC Leader’s Bid For One Unitary Authority Torpedoed By Shock Government U-Turn

  1. Dave Middleton Reply

    September 18, 2020 at 11:41 pm

    In the words of Battery Sergeant Major Willilams RA, “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”

    I think the wording of Cllr Oliver’s email displays his fundamental arrogance, as also evidenced by his desire to impose his unitary authority scheme on the people of Surrey with no consultation or mandate.

    Repeatedly referring to a secretary of state by his surname only, shows appalling bad manners and a complete lack of respect.

  2. J Vickers Reply

    September 19, 2020 at 5:51 pm

    I agree with D Middleton’s comments.

    When Cllr Oliver’s stance first came to my attention on this Unitary Authority nonsense I could hardly believe what I was reading. Grotesque arrogance is truly distasteful. Hopefully, we won’t get the arrogance I perceive?

  3. Neill Rubidge Reply

    September 19, 2020 at 7:11 pm

    There is a way of providing more efficient Unitary Authorities which would avoid the duplication and improve democracy – simply get rid of Surrey County Council. The existing lower-tier councils are perfectly capable of working together when there are benefits, and to work independently when this is beneficial.

  4. John Perkins Reply

    September 19, 2020 at 8:20 pm

    My assumption (perhaps wrong) is that Cllr Oliver was acting under orders, which were then reversed.

  5. Colin Cross Reply

    September 21, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Indeed, Mr Rubidge is spot on, surely SCC is the underlying problem in our local politics.

    The organisation is the problem rather than being the solution. Their awful track record over recent years says it all and clearly indicates they are the last party we should be turning to now or ever.

    I write this in my private capacity.

  6. J Vickers Reply

    September 21, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    SCC seems to be a remarkably undemocratic organization. Quite odd in today’s climate.

  7. Stuart Boyle Reply

    September 21, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    Let us not forget that county elections are looming

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