Time to cut out some councils

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Sally-Ann Hart

As lockdown begins to come to an end, but things are still far from normal, our Member of Parliament Sally-Ann Hart looks towards a different future in an article on the Conservative Home website.

The organisation of local government in the UK has changed over the centuries and much of the current structure has been in place since the Local Government Act of 1972, where the two-tier system of borough/district and counties was established. As we are working to get back on our economic feet after lockdown, we need to think expansively in the long term interests of our country.

The time is right to take the opportunity to consider cutting out middle-tier district and borough councils and focus on consolidation into unitary councils, addressing some of the issues that the multi-tier system has created.

I do not suggest this lightly; my local district council, Rother, has done a remarkable job during the coronavirus crisis and thanks must be given to all the officers for the extra work that they have undertaken to provide the best possible services, work with local volunteer community groups, and safeguard the vulnerable.

However, despite the extra millions that the government has given local authorities to cover the extra costs incurred during the coronavirus health and economic crisis, the financial situation of the majority of smaller councils is apparently unsustainable and many are calling for more funding to cover loss of income from car parks, council tax, business rates, and investment income, as a result of the lockdown.

Consolidation of district, borough, and county councils will foster the ability to drive greater efficiency and thereby save taxpayers’ money through economies of scale. Unitary authorities could also provide better social care services as counties struggle financially and look for different ways to meet what seems like ever-increasing demands. It makes sense that social care – children and adults, housing, benefits, health, and possibly police are brought under one authority with a focus on more integrated solutions.

Localism is vital in strengthening local communities. Unitary authorities do not take away from local decision-making and town and parish councils should be retained with their delegated responsibilities, as they are closer to communities. Having more regionally focussed authorities may encourage greater decentralisation by having a more joined-up approach for local government.

Disagreements between the tiers of local government, due to different political philosophies, make it almost impossible to speak with one voice; something that would be more effective when dealing with or lobbying central government to address local needs.

During coronavirus, we have seen great collaboration across the country between government and local authorities, but more recently, we have also seen some ideological clashes between Labour councils, their local Conservative MPs, and the government.

Take James Daly and Christian Wakeford in Bury, where they have had to write to head teachers in their constituencies asking them to ignore the town hall’s “political grandstanding” and make their own decisions for school ‘re-opening’. In the north east, the Labour council leader of Gateshead urged local people to disregard the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions and the Newcastle council leader branded the government “deeply irresponsible” for easing restrictions.

In my constituency, Labour-controlled Hastings Borough Council has urged people to continue to ‘Stay at Home’ and have even posted ‘Hastings Closed’ signs. It has refused to open public lavatories and I have constituents emailing me about the stink of urine and human excrement in public places. At the time of writing, it has also yet to open-up its government funded discretionary grant scheme to help local businesses.

Through all this, Labour councillors in their local fiefdoms blame the problems and deficiencies they, themselves, have caused, on the Conservative government. There seems to be little incentive for them to help boost residents’ confidence in living with coronavirus and getting our economy back on track – they would rather play political games and make political capital than save livelihoods. Important measures, such as those that are now required, need to be determined centrally and implemented locally.

Requests to local government to adopt changes in the broader interest can be widely ignored. Asking local government to impose changes on themselves and create unitary councils would not affect the change needed. This is a decision which needs to be made and imposed by central government.

Attracting councillors at all levels of local government has long been an issue. Many are elected unopposed and some have to be cajoled into standing. By paying a smaller number of unitary councillors commensurately for the skills he or she brings to bear, candidates of a higher or more committed calibre should be attracted to the role.

This will also allow (and require) elected councillors to really focus on the very important role of being a councillor, accountable to the electorate. Support from an able and experienced permanent executive at the unitary level to provide expertise and effective financial management, advise and execute the councillors’ policies is a given.

New unitary authorities, if we get them right, can transform local government into more efficient, cost effective, and customer focused undertakings without giving up important local accountability. As we face huge changes in our ways of working, what better time is there to make local government fit for the future?

Source: Conservative Home website
https://www.conservativehome.com/localgovernment/2020/06/sally-ann-hart-unitary-status-for-local-government-is-required-without-further-delay.html

Image Credits: UK Parliament https://members.parliament.uk/member/4842/portrait.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article, thanks for being so forthright.

    Local democracy does need urgent attention and I wholeheartedly agree with the need to dispense with so many layers: ‘unitary authorities’ sounds a good way to go (although I suggest a less authoritarian moniker). I am not sure that keeping town and parish councils has any value as they have so little responsibility and it is mainly ceremonial – and we all pay for it on our community charge bills.

    I must add on your ‘Labour councillors in their local fiefdoms …’ comment. Clearly you are a conservative politician and that is fair enough, however the labour councillors jibe works both ways as when I was working with local authorities and London boroughs during the labour government days there were many ‘Conservative councillors in their local fiefdoms …’ who tried to disrupt the government in clever ways. Guess that’s politics.

  2. Citizen first. Then constituent. Perhaps then I would concede to being a Customer, as I do pay for my councile tax. I am always supsicious of politicians who regard their constituents as customers, worse still consumers. How would you nominate, let alone elect an ‘experienced permanent executive’ and who would be their moral guide? I say this becuase, while I do agree with elements of this piece, it sounds a bit like it’s a given, coming from Conservative Home, that said experienced permenent executives just might come from a world where finance is first? When it’s not. Just a thought.

  3. This article is quite rich…it has been the Conservative party that has weakened local governments and thus reduced grass roots democracy over the past ten years by slowly reducing budgets and taking control away from local authorities. Keep in mind that weaker planning regulations, the approval of fracking, reduced environmental protections, and the significant weakening of local public health bodies come from this Government. If we move to unitary councils we will be further away from the councillors that represent us. Rother Council has not been a friend to Rye (for example, full approval of the Lawn Tennis Club’s indoor courts against the wishes of Rye and Playden councils) and East Sussex Council ignores the Rye Neighbourhood plan as it rushes to install parking meters in the old town, as another example. I cannot imagine a unitary council paying much attention to Rye and other small towns, let alone the smaller villages. Rather than unitary councils we might be better served by far fewer MPs, who draw much higher salaries and expenses than local councillors. Ms. Hart’s attack on Labour councils is misplaced and further strives to divide the country. The central government has placed the economy above the welfare of its people during its incompetent response to the pandemic and it has been some local councils ( Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrats) that have had the good sense to resist dangerous plans to reduce social distancing too quickly, not to reopen schools without careful planning, and require masks indoors. Ms Hart ignores that Hastings has one of the lowest infection and death rates in the UK and their council should be applauded and not chastised. Whether public toilets are open or not is not the main issue here. The issue is the wellbeing of the population. The idea for unitary council expansion comes from Dominic Cummings. Does anyone really think he cares about anything other than consolidating power and central government control? We need to resist. Give more funding and control to local councils including parish councils so we can reclaim our local democracy.

  4. I lived in Germany for many years. The house was 500 meters down a single track ‘farm’ road. Local taxes were, from memory DM 120 a year (about £60). Winters were bad, but I was never snowed in. The community paid a local farmer to clear the streets and I asked him to deal with mine. He did, for a bottle of Schnapps (His price not mine). Local problems were sorted out by calling the mayor or meeting him at the local. I understand that in those days the state government was responsible for Education, Police, Roads etc all from general taxation.

    At the state level things were different. All the ministerial offices (except military) were duplicated at great expense and, dare I say, pomposity too. The Political parties operated a sort of mafia system where if one wanted something done, one looked at the strengths and weaknesses of each. And cosied up to the party that seemed able to deliver. The suggestion of Unitary authorities sounds a bit like the German Lander. The Pandemic has shone a spotlight on devolution. There seems to have been a lot of grandstanding, tweaks and delays for no reason other than to ‘prove’ they can. The same can be said of the Mayorials.

    Rather than trying to fix it might it not be a good idea to go backwards? At the local level my German experience was a happy one. What about scrapping big local authorities, funding from the centre and scraping council tax in favour of a local – parish charge. A criticism of Hart’s suggestions on the CH website is that cutting local government would damage political parties who rely on local councillors to spearhead their campaigns. Personally, I think that would be an added bonus. Local issues should not be political. Councils of one colour should not see their purpose as inflicting political harm on the other colours, using residents as the ball in their ping-pong game. My father claimed that when things were run by residents associations they were better. That was in the 1930s – time to look back and learn? Those who do not learn from past mistakes are condemning others to suffer.

  5. Michael Wood, that sounds like a cracking idea of improving local democracy.

    At the moment our schools, traffic, roads, policing, planning, libraries, fire services (look at the recent controversy over Rye fire station) are hopelessly mis-managed by one of our councils (take your pick). I suggest a more professional, centralised approach to some of these responsibilities may work. For instance in planning we have a ridiculous system in which: a professional planning department will recommend yes or no to a scheme; councillors choose to ignore advice (maybe because it is not popular – after all they are politicians, albeit at a low level); it goes to appeal and the Secretary of State (has he or she not got more important things to do than to decide whether Rye needs a garage?) then decides yes or no: how can this be a sensible way of running anything? And is certainly using central government to decide local issues.

    We have a local democracy in the town council – unfortunately this is a ceremonial role that has virtually no responsibility for anything and certainly no leverage. However if this could be improved in calibre, with a professional mayor who had responsibility for real issues – parking etc. (as in other countries) it could improve local decision making

  6. I would like to thank our MP for her insightful view on democracy. I was under the misapprehension of a number of points, for which I am grateful for her to clarify.

    1. I thought that Hastings BC had been democratically elected, but clearly it is a remnant of our Feudal system and needs to have its power restricted or abolished.
    2. I had thought that our Local Authorities since 2010 had seen a 60% reduction in their funding from Central Government. Thus this money has been more wisely used by the Centralised Government.
    3. The comment: “Important measures, such as those that are now required, need to be determined centrally and implemented locally.” That has given me an idea for a book.

    However I remember once reading about an Enabling Act in 1933. I never understood how it could happen in a democracy……I think I now have a better understanding.

  7. Takings politics out of it, these layers of local government also generate a system that is far too costly. A point that Michael Woods makes from his experiences in Germany, and one that I have heard many times over. No doubt as a result of the level of central Government funding. Living in an ordinary bungalow, albeit on a large plot of land in a rural location, results in my monthly council tax charge eating just over half of my state pension. That represents extraordinarily poor value for money in my opinion.

  8. I must say I agree with your comment. I too live in a small bungalow with a decent sized garden and the amount of council tax I pay and the services I get for that make me wonder just what rother district council spend our money on. It is certainly not customer service. trying to get through to them on the telephone phone is a nightmare.

  9. I must say I agree with Dr Camic,
    it has been a deliberate policy of this Government and the previous to divert funds away from labour controlled councils in favour of Tory ones.
    The irony of this is that the Red Wall were many of these councils and metropolitan areas, who believed that their labour led Councils were failing them.
    From my understanding also, these ideas have been mooted over many years but never came to fruition due to the reluctance of Rother Tory led council not wishing to be associated with Hastings.

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