I’ve not yet been a councillor for two years, but one thing remains as odd to me now as it did when I started. Why do we have two tiers of local government?
I’ve lost count of the number of times a resident has approached me – about recycling centres, roads and schools – and I’ve had to explain that that’s an issue for the county council. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to have one council responsible for everything.
Now I’m not suggesting that we abolish district councils and move to a unitary county. In my own county of Kent, that would be a colossal monolith. Rather I would advocate looking the other way and making the district councils into unitaries as in Berkshire. This would be a fantastic push for localism as it would move more decision making down to a local level, rather than being at Shire Hall.
For Canterbury district, this would have tremendous benefits. It would likely lead to substantial cost savings as layers of duplication in management could be stripped out. It also saves money in much more prosaic ways – less councillors and officers having to troop off 30 miles to meetings in Maidstone for example.
We also have a two year offset between county and district elections so one set of councillors always has an eye on elections – removing this would allow more long term planning. Yes there would be fewer councillors (another saving) but given that the unitary councillors would now be making all the decisions, I don’t see this as a democratic deficit.
This removing of a tier of government could be combined with empowering parish and town councils to further add to the localising of decision making.
The argument against unitary authorities on district council scale has always been that they would lack the critical mass for functions such as highways and social services.
My counter to this is twofold. Firstly many districts now have extensive shared services – there is no reason why the provision of these “critical mass” services cannot be done in conjunction with other authorities. But the decision making is kept local.
Secondly just look at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead – they are a unitary much the same size as Canterbury and are one of the most successful local authorities in the country.
Eric Pickles spoke last year of his opposition to central government imposing unitary status on councils. I completely agree with him – nothing could be worse than this.
I would hope that he would look more favourably on a proposal that came from a district council. If the benefits of moving to unitary status could be clearly demonstrated, this would be a pragmatic and
straightforward way of devolving decision making closer to local people.