Going Unitary, or not?
Going Unitary – two tier or not two tier, that is the question.
Is good local representation improved with fewer councillors in a very large authority? Not likely. This is about democracy, making sure local voices are properly heard.
Councils have the option of requesting a unitary authority from central government and may put forward suggestions as to how they wish to proceed. However, Central Government has the power to enforce a change on one or all councils if it chooses. This would normally be done by dialogue, which gives Councils an opportunity to head off the proposals if they can make a strong enough argument against. This is most likely to work if it is a collective decision within a county or region.
- Is there an advantage to strategic vision, streamlining of decision-making with a mayor, fewer staff and less duplication?
If duplication exists, then it should and is knocked out of the current system without changing structures of government. Hence we bring expertise together in shared services such as in Benefits and Legal support, and shared budgets and boards such as Health and Wellbeing and Health Scrutiny and Strategic Planning. We have county-wide agreed strategies for homelessness and for waste. Councils can and already have made savings, whilst also broadening collaboration and support, yet retain their independence.
Districts and County Councils have separate responsibilities appropriate to their size. County Planning considers applications on strategic issues of roads, minerals and waste sites for example. Surely it is clear that consultation on these matters with partner authorities is important, not to be dismissed as “duplication”?
- Is there a disadvantage in moving to larger organisations, such as Unitaries?
The disadvantage of less local connections with fewer councillors and less representation is damaging to democracy. “Streamlined”, appears to mean less work done and less collaboration. With a reduced feedback from the local community upwards, there is a potential for poorer decisions. Central decision-making has proved its failings during the Covid crisis. Even the EU invented a new word subsidiarity to demonstrate that the old system of sucking up power was not efficient.
It is suggested that there is an advantage of saving money by less duplication of facilities; such as office space, transport, meetings. However, cost savings are already being implemented under existing non unitary bodies by joint working and sharing of chief executives for example. The case for a centralist approach with a larger body is not clear. With Councils having different responsibilities they still need staff with expertise on the service being handled. Moving them to a different body will not make any difference unless the service itself is cut. There is also the issue of competence. Where is the evidence that Unitaries have better management competence, which is essential to do the job properly?
There are transition costs of changing to a Unitary. Various estimates suggest this could take three to five years before any cost advantage could become apparent, if it exists at all. The case has to be strong to warrant taking this financial gamble. It could be a distraction at the very time when the country is in crisis and continuity of local government structures may be the best way of dealing with both Covid and Climate Change issues. Moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic at this stage is a political not a pragmatic decision. It is a certain cost, not just financially, with an uncertain outcome.
It is suggested that a single council covering the work of existing councils under the two-tier system is confusing to the public. Those members that regularly engage with the council soon find out which number to ring or email to use. Those that need help have a local councillor to assist them. People would still need an answer from a Switchboard to find the right department, and human contact at the correct department. Officers being out of office and unavailable is more of an issue than the structure of Government. Rationalisation is likely to exasperate this problem, with yet more multiple-choice answering services.
Councils have largely resolved the issue for the public by having shared platforms to access services, such as Parish Councils, local access points, and especially Fix my street online. Here the complaint is immediately directed to the right department of the right council, with a timescale for an answer.
Holding the right people to account does occur, but having a mayor does not alter this, since on such a grand scale, elections are heavily driven by national party politics.
Unitary is not the right solution for Lincolnshire and certainly not all ten Councils. The County breaks most naturally as City of Lincoln, East Lindsey and West Lindsey; North and South Kesteven, South Holland and Boston as a second and North and North East Lincolnshire as a third.
Delegating more responsibilities and powers to the Parish Councils provided representation of remunerated Councillors is maintained at a local level has already been implemented as far as possible. Many PCs would struggle with volunteer members and it might actually weaken the democratic base at village level.
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