Counties and districts clash over new report

By Laura Sharman and Dan Peters | 17 November 2017

A war of words has broken out between the two tiers of English local government after a report said replacing district councils with single unitary authorities could save £2.9bn a year.

The County Councils' Network (CCN) commissioned report called for the urgent reform of the existing two-tier system, arguing that counties were the right size for councils to take the lead on creating local industrial strategies for their area.

ResPublica's report prompted an angry backlash from chair of the District Councils' Network (DCN), John Fuller, who dismissed it for promoting a 'sterile and rather tiresome debate about structures'.

The Local Government Association, of which both CCN and DCN are special interest groups, declined to comment on the controversial report, which proposed two models for reform - either single unitary authorities at county scale or a reformed two-tier arrangement where counties act as strategic authorities.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: 'Moving to a single-tier large unitary authority can often give residents a better deal for their local taxes, improved local services, less bureaucracy and stronger and more accountable local leadership.

‘However, we are clear that any such move must be both locally-led and have support from the community.'

But director of ResPublica, Phillip Blond, called for the 'needless confusion that frustrates the ambitions of business and government alike in our county areas' to end now.

He continued: 'With Brexit on the horizon and our city regions already benefitting from devolution, we can’t afford the waste and complication that the current system creates.

'Single councils at the county scale are the future and we call on the Government to move rapidly to encourage them.’

CCN chairman, Cllr Paul Carter, added: ‘For those who wish to pursue more radical reform, this report clearly illustrates the huge economic and public service benefits of streamlining complex local government structures into singular county unitary authorities.'

England's manufacturers have backed the report.

Chris Richards, head of business environment policy at manufacturers organisation, EEF, said: 'Today's ResPublica report is another hammer blow to the columns holding up the outdated two-tier local government system in England.

'The Government should be ambitious for local communities and businesses, and outline a clear policy ambition to abolish over time the two-tier local government structure.'

The report is likely to reignite the row between counties and districts in some areas.

While communities secretary Sajid Javid has given preliminary backing to some reorganisation proposals, he has yet to deliver a verdict to areas where plans created bitter splits.

A report by Nottingham and Derby city councils that talked vaguely about creating a metro area without directly proposing local government reorganisation has sparked county fears that this is the 'thin end of the wedge'.

The furious leaders of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire said the report had been produced in a 'secret and underhand' way and was only given to them days before it was due to be published.

Nottinghamshire leader, Cllr Kay Cutts, said: 'This is a bombshell and has come completely out of the blue for the county council, sent to us just a matter of days before its official release.

'I have taken the decision, in the public interest, to release it into the public domain immediately.

'Despite regular contact between the county and city, there has been no discussion, no consultation and no suggestion from the city council that this piece of work was being done.

'I feel let down.'

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