Fringe Box



SCC Spent Nearly £250k ‘Jumping Gun’ in Failed Unitary Authority ‘Power-Grab’

Published on: 1 Oct, 2020
Updated on: 3 Oct, 2020

By Julie Armstrong, local democracy reporter and Martin Giles

Under Lib Dem pressure, Surrey County Council has admitted spending £246,000 of taxpayer cash on their failed single unitary authority bid, now revealed this week as a Conservative Party community “power-grab” in a letter leaked to The Guardian and revealed in The Dragon (see: SCC Leader’s Bid For One Unitary Authority Torpedoed By Shock Government U-Turn).

The eye-watering spend is nearly £100,000 more than the estimate given by SCC leader Tim Oliver in an exclusive interview with Dragon editor Martin Giles after Whitehall U-turned on their July plans to announce a White Paper on devolution in the autumn.

Then, Cllr Oliver (Con, Weybridge), said the costs were: “Somewhere between £100,000 and £150,000 that sort of order…”

SCC leader Tim Oliver

Outrage is spreading because the shock SCC bid, leaked exclusively to The Dragon in Cllr Oliver’s initial private email to Surrey Conservatives, forced the 11 boroughs and districts facing extinction to pass a combined £300,000 budget for consultancy fees to research multiple unitary authorities covering the county’s 1.2 million residents. Luckily, only some, but not all, of this budget has been spent.

Lib Dem SCC Cllr Will Forster (Woking South) said: “What a waste of money .. not only for the county council but also for Surrey’s borough and district councils, whose much smaller budgets are already stretched to the limit having to deliver extra services during the pandemic.

County Cllr Will Forster

“They didn’t even have a response yet from the government, which I think is awful with Surrey being a big economic powerhouse. Even if they’d had a response they don’t have the unity of the public and the boroughs and districts.”

Mr Forster, also a local councillor and former mayor of Woking, added: “It is not surprising this government has made yet another U-turn on policy proposals, but the county council jumping the gun not only made a serious error of judgement in attempting this undemocratic power-grab but also overestimated its influence with government ministers.”

Cllr George Potter

Guildford Cllr George Potter (Lib Dem, Burpham) said: “The amount spent on this unitary bid highlights the warped set of priorities at County Hall.

“Residents across our borough have all felt the effects of county council cutbacks, from the underfunding of the fire service and the closure of libraries and children’s centres, to potholes in the roads and swingeing cuts to social care.

“Yet Surrey Conservatives still found the time and money to try to ram through a single unitary without discussion or consultation with residents or district councils.

“Lib Dems are not opposed to unitaries. The most democratic and economic sense is to have three unitaries in Surrey, and this bid for a single monster council was an unnecessary and dangerous distraction at a time when local government should be focused on responding to the pandemic.

“The recently leaked County Councils Network (CCN) letter (Another Tory Leak Reveals ‘Party Power Motive’ Behind Unitary Authority Plans)  makes it clear the main motivation behind the unitary bids was to gain political advantage for the Conservative Party, and sadly the same seems to be true in our County Hall. Yet again, they’ve put their party ahead of doing what’s right for the people of Surrey.”

The huge SCC spend is made up of £71,000 on a review of alternative scenarios and options, £107,000 on developing a business case for a single unitary, £30,000 on evaluating the financial resilience of local government in Surrey and £38,000 on commissioning research on residents’ views.

But Cllr Oliver said: “The money spent on research looking at more effective community engagement and the structure of local government in Surrey will be essential to our future work, particularly on local community networks, regardless of any reorganisation.

“It has provided valuable insight into upcoming challenges across Surrey and provided useful feedback from residents, which was mostly positive.”

He said the county council had shared work with districts and boroughs and the “decision to spend further money on similar activity was entirely their own”.

Nick Prescot, chair of Surrey Leaders’ Group representing the districts and boroughs, said: “A very strong proportion has not been spent, and will not be unless the momentum of the unitary debate starts again.”

They have also instructed consultancy firm KPMG to examine enhancement of the status quo.

Cllr Prescot, Conservative [not Residents Association, as previously stated in error] leader of Runnymede Borough Council, added: “The money already engaged will now be spent looking at forging closer relationships with SCC, parish and town councils and neighbourhood forums.”

Earlier this week, in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaked to The Guardian and reported in The Dragon, the Conservative group head at the County Councils Network warned delaying abolition of the smaller councils would not be helpful for their party.

Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick has still not responded to Cllr Oliver’s letter sent on July 10 asking him to invite SCC to submit a business case for a single unitary authority.

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Responses to SCC Spent Nearly £250k ‘Jumping Gun’ in Failed Unitary Authority ‘Power-Grab’

  1. Alan Cooper Reply

    October 2, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    Yet more of our money totally wasted by the ego of certain councillors. It is an outrageous waste of money and it continues with other issues that appear to cost thousands. There are far too many examples to list here, but residents will undoubtedly have their own lists.

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