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The Dragon Says: Forget Efficiency and Cost-cutting, This is a Unitary Bid For Political Power

Published on: 10 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 14 Jul, 2020

When something has gone wrong with a local service, be that potholes, rubbish not collected, planning permission granted or refused, we often blame “the council”.

Many haven’t a clue whether it is the county council or the borough council who is responsible and they don’t give a jot.

So a proposal to do away with the county and borough councils and form one big council responsible for everything might seem attractive. Significant savings should be realised at a time when government grants to local authorities have dried up.

But is economy and efficiency the only motive behind this proposal at this time?

Surprisingly, if not amazingly, in a county many might describe politically as the bluest of the blue, only three of Surrey’s borough and district councils are controlled by the Conservative Party.

Why is this and why does it contrast so markedly with the county Parliamentary constituencies which are all blue? There is no one single answer but a significant number of voters are no longer supporting the Tories in local elections.

Perhaps some Europhile Conservatives wished to punish them for their eventual Brexit stance but a good number seemed to have become disenchanted with their local policies and more specifically their collaboration with party colleagues at a national level to enthusiastically promote development in Surrey, already with a high population density, even at the expense of precious green belt.

If Guildford is an example, the party that used to promise to protect the green belt is now doing the opposite. In our borough, for a still unexplained reason, they did not even use the constraints available to limit the housing number.

They might have gambled on voter apathy. Many residents don’t bother voting in local elections and many of those who do vote for a party ignore their local policies. Fortunately for them, political party affiliations can now be included on ballot papers.

Boris Johnson famously told our former MP Anne Milton that the political loss of Guildford would be a price worth paying for his Brexit policy. In the end, he did not have to pay up as a Brexit-weary Guildford electorate stuck with his party, albeit with a much-reduced majority.

But some at Tory HQ will no doubt have noticed the impact of their planning policy on local elections and it must be uncomfortable to see such an effect in their heartland.

With the determined “brook no opposition” approach of Messrs Johnson and unelected adviser-in-chief Dominic Cummings pinning all their hopes on an economic recovery driven by increased house-building, the rebellious Tories in Surrey who have had the temerity to switch their support at borough and district level can be outflanked. If they dare to vote in non-Tory borough councils they will scrap them. And scrap them tout suite.

Having road-tested his eyesight, Mr Cummings probably sees that without the lower-tier local authority pesky opposition, development can proceed apace under new planning rules in the pipeline and Surrey can be leading the way.

The rumours are that SCC leader Cllr Tim Oliver claims government leaders believe Surrey can be the guinea pig or trailblazer for others. Or to put it another way, Surrey is seen as part of a Greater London, and a cash cow that can generate even more wealth for distribution elsewhere.

Cllr Oliver represents Weybridge but do those of us in Guildford, Waverley or Mole Valley consider ourselves to be even a remote part of a Greater London?

But the government wants to act quickly, outmanoeuvring any opposition. Perhaps that is why a reported secret briefing of Borough and District Councils’ chief executives was held. If true, how was the prospect of them losing their job and the associated extensive redundancies of local council officers sold to them?

And there is even talk of the 2021 SCC elections being postponed and a single election, presumably for the huge unitary authority they hope to create, being held in 2022, requiring the truncation of Guildford Borough Council and others who were elected to be in place until 2023.

The calculation is probably that as one monolithic unitary authority, twice the size of any other in England, Conservative control would be almost certain and longstanding.

Government after government has talked about devolvement of power and of localism when, in fact, more and more power has been centralised. First, it was the purse strings, more lately planning control.

Both the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, locally at least, have been in favour of unitary authorities which could actually deliver more local democracy. But that would mean more than one single authority in Surrey and government legislation truly enabling devolvement of power. And that does not seem likely.

Unitary authorities are not by their nature a bad thing, if set up correctly. They have definite advantages, but they should not be imposed and used as a smokescreen to secure political power, exclude opposition and drive through unpopular policies.

We, as the residents of Surrey, must have a proper and democratic say.

See also: Surrey County Council Faces Battle in Bid to Scrap Borough and District Councils

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test 3 Responses to The Dragon Says: Forget Efficiency and Cost-cutting, This is a Unitary Bid For Political Power

  1. George Potter Reply

    July 10, 2020 at 12:46 am

    Very well said.

    Unitaries in Surrey? Yes, if residents want them.

    But one single super-size monster council of 1.2 million people governed from Kingston and riding roughshod over local communities with no need to fear comeuppance at the ballot box? No thank you.

    George Potter is a Lib Dem borough councillor for Burpham.

  2. George Hesse Reply

    July 10, 2020 at 8:35 am

    Very thought provoking article on Surrey County Council and Tory plans afoot to seize total control.

    Thank you.

  3. Gordon Bridger Reply

    July 10, 2020 at 3:31 pm

    A very commendable editorial.

    Anyone familiar with Cornwall, made a unitary authority a few years ago, will be aware that it has not been a success.

    And anyone who has anything to do with Surrey County Council will know it is an almost impenetrable bureaucracy with a life of its own.

    To increase its powers would be a great folly and particularly for Guildford which has a lot to preserve (financial as well as physical).

    The pressure to development will be huge for as “The Dragon Says” Surrey is a source of surplus for the economy. No doubt Woking would be a town model which this giant authority would seek to emulate.

    Britain already has one of the most centralized economies, almost Soviet in its controls and this move would centralize decisions even further.

    But hold on, isn’t this is a Conservative government which believes, correctly in my view, that a free market economy has proved to be more successful than a centrally planned one?

    The government policy should be to give more power to local authorities and release those “animal spirits” which have done so much to transform the world.

    Guildford has become a very successful wealthy community thanks to a superb location, having a well-educated workforce an excellent education system and an attractive environment. It could perfectly well look after itself, if given the chance to plan its own future.

    Gordon Bridger is a hon alderman and former Mayor of Guildford.

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