Saturday, December 22, 2018

Could change in Cumbria's local government finally be on the way?

There was overwhelming support - including from myself - at the last Full Council meeting of Cumbria County Council for exploring the possibility of a move to "unitary" local government in the county.

This would mean that instead of seven councils and hundreds of councillors, of which is one is top tier (the county council) and six are district tier (Allerdale, Barrow, Carlisle, Copeland, Eden and South Lakes,) you would have one or two "unitary" councils each of which carries out all the functions currently handled by both of the existing tiers.

A single unitary authority would not mean that the county council was taking over the responsibilities of the districts: it would mean that all seven existing councils would be scrapped and replaced with a different type of council.

Unitary authorities which carry out all the functions of both tiers existed from 1889 to 1974 in England and Wales under the name "County Boroughs." they were scrapped in the 1974 local government reorganisation but made a comeback in some parts of the UK in the 1990's

The unitary model of local government presents three major advantages over a two-tier system.
The first is that it tends to be cheaper and more efficient because their are fewer councils. 

Under the present system Cumbria currently has nearly 370 County and District councillors although the number of councillors is due to drop by 37 in May next year as a result of boundary reviews in Allerdale, Carlisle and Copeland. Under a unitary model with one or two councils the number of councillors and senior officers would be significantly lower.  

A council is required to have a Head of Paid Service, a section 151 officer, and a monitoring officer (these roles are usually performed by a Chief Executive, a Chief Financial Officer and a Chief Legal Officer,)  We would no longer need seven of each of these, not to mention seven legal departments, seven finance departments, seven human resources departments, etc, etc, etc.

It has been estimated that going down from seven councils to one would save about £28 million a year or down to two about £17 million a year.

Perhaps more importantly, the current split of functions between county and district tiers creates massive potential for disagreements, logjams, stalemate, and "right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing" problems. Both tiers have responsibilities in planning, in public health, in flooding and drainage and in a number of other areas.

The county council is responsible for on-street parking and the districts for off-street parking: the districts for waste collection and the county for waste disposal. The districts' responsibility for planning includes power to put conditions and impose charges on developers which are essential to the County council's responsibilities to provide roads and education.

Different policies and agendas at these two levels can be a major cause of dysfunctional service and we have had more than one instance of councils threatening to take each other to court or take enforcement action against each other.   

The third argument for unitary local government is that it is much clearer who is responsible for any given service or decision and the electorate is likely to find it much easier to know who to go to and who to hold accountable.

The huge difficulty is agreeing how what geographical areas your unitary authorities should cover and how large they should be. Councils covering a larger area tend to be more efficient but also more remote and less accountable. 

My personal opinion is that a system of two unitary authorities for Cumbria, perhaps working together as a "combined authority" on some issues, would be a big improvement on the current situation but that the immense geographical area of Cumbria is just two big for a single council to be representative and responsive.  I didn't support the previous proposal for one council for Cumbria and would have to think very carefully about whether to support it now if that's what comes forward again. But I would certainly support any reasonable two-council solution. 

Previous attempts to agree a system of unitary authorities in this area failed because of this kind of disagreement about how many councils there should be and covering what boundaries.

I gather that Cumbria County Council's cabinet agreed at Thursday's county council county cabinet meeting to make a formal expression of interest to the government putting forward a number of options for unitary local government, including both the single council model and several two-council models.

I also gather that the view was even expressed at the meeting that a change along these lines is "inevitable," though I am reminded of the expression "there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip."

It will be interesting to see what happens. I hope a good proposal can come forward.

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