Fringe Box



Tory-Controlled County Council Refuse to Explain £246,000 Spent on Failed Unitary Bid

Published on: 15 Oct, 2020
Updated on: 17 Oct, 2020

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Conservative-dominated Surrey County Council has refused to publicly justify the £246,000 in taxpayer funds they said they spent on their bid to set up a single unitary authority under the expected White Paper on local government. Whitehall blocked the unauthorised plan, leaving council leader Tim Oliver widely accused of “jumping the gun”.

Residents’ Association and Independent county councillors, who claimed the cost was nearer £350,000, asked Cllr Oliver at the October 13 council meeting for a full public report on the timing of his plan to replace all Surrey’s other 11 borough and district councils, the costs and authorisation of the spend.

In what Ashtead Resident Cllr Chris Townsend called a “show of breathtaking arrogance” the proposal was voted down by 52 to 21. Of the 81 county councillors, 58 are Conservative, nine Lib Dems, 11 Residents’ Associations/Independents and one each for Labour, Green and Brexit.

Last week, the government invited councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset to submit proposals for unitary structures.

Residents’ Association Cllr Eber Kington (Ewell Court, Auriol & Cuddington) said: “At the outset there was no consultation with the boroughs and districts or residents. And unfortunately for Mr Oliver, he also didn’t consult the Prime Minister.

“The pantomime season may have been cancelled in the theatres, but this Conservative administration is at least keeping its spirit alive.”

The Residents’ estimate of £325,000 plus £183,000 spent on discarded plans for a Woking SCC HQ, which “failed because one of the tenants refused to move out”, said Cllr Nick Darby (The Dittons), totals about £500,000.

Cllr Nick Darby in Long Dittons, part of his SCC division. Photo Rebecca Curley

Cllr Darby, Residents’ Association and Independent group leader, added that had the council been “less accident-prone”, cuts made in their mental health budget could have been avoided.

And he itemised the bid. “It seems, £71,000 on initial research, £97,500 on what is described as a comprehensive business case, £37,970 on a phone survey and focus groups, £33,866 on a leaflet and postage, £15,000 at £5,000 per month on public affairs support and £69,514 on a senior policy lead.

“Is it really right to suggest this might be useful later?”

The boroughs and districts spent an additional £150,000 on their own research into alternative restructuring, which Cllr Oliver said had identified opportunities to save costs.

Cllr Tim Oliver

Cllr Oliver said: “The government still intend to publish the White Paper. We were encouraged to start work on a business plan and that is what we have done.

“Now, it appears the government can take on only three county councils to a unitary status. There are five others, of which we are one, in wave two and we’ve yet to find when that will happen.”

After the meeting Cllr Darby said: “The refusal to debate the issue and to reject any public scrutiny of their plans is not only treating opposition councillors with contempt but, more importantly, it is treating Surrey residents with contempt.”

The council had also rejected a Lib Dem motion calling for a much-needed reconciliation with the boroughs and districts after the breakdown in trust. This was caused, said Lib Dem group leader Chris Botten, by the perceived “power-grab” by the county council without prior notice or consultation with the councils.

Cllr Fiona White

Cllr Fiona White (Lib Dem, Guildford West), added: “A lot of work has to be done to heal relationships with the district and borough councils. Regardless of their political make-up, I think just about all of them feel ill-used by this council especially in view of the work they have put in to deliver local services during lockdown and after.

“It is a shame the leaflet put round by this council earlier this year does not specifically acknowledge that record.”

The council did pass a motion reaffirming their commitment to closer resident engagement.

Cllr Oliver said: “What is most important to me, beyond any structural change or governance, is our residents, their priorities and giving them more influence over their own communities.

“In conjunction with district and borough councils, we will create local community networks, so residents can have real influence in their distinct, natural communities that they themselves recognise.”

He said the council is considering creating up to 30 new Local Community Networks, each 30,000 to 50,000 strong, across Surrey.

This would “allow residents to operate with town and parish councils where they exist, other public services and partners to decide priorities, make decisions and tackle local issues that affect them”.

Lib Dems on the council dismissed the proposals as “too vague”. Cllr White said: “There was nothing to tell us whether they would be just talking shops or whether they would have any powers or money.

“Elected councillors are bound by the Nolan principles of public life and are accountable to their voters. There was no idea of how these networks would be governed or to whom they would be accountable.

“We are concerned they will be run by consultants through focus groups which would add to the money already spent on the initial failed bid but would not necessarily represent residents’ views. There are already ways of finding out the views of local people without setting up a new network.

“Unfortunately, Conservatives at all levels of government say they are consulting but then take no notice of what they are told.”

Share This Post

Responses to Tory-Controlled County Council Refuse to Explain £246,000 Spent on Failed Unitary Bid

  1. Martin Clowes Reply

    October 15, 2020 at 9:45 pm

    This is a deeply worrying trend at a time when it is becoming very clear that local communities and a clear understanding of the issues at stake are more important to people than Poorly communicated national objectives with centralised control which takes little account of local needs.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *