Cllr Katrina Wood is the Leader of Wycombe District Council.
I am one of the four district leaders in Buckinghamshire who have been working together on a bid for two separate unitary councils in Buckinghamshire. We strongly advocate that a change to local government in Buckinghamshire is much needed. Not just a restructure, but real change, and real change requires new thinking.
We don’t disagree that service delivery will be aided by the demise of the two-tier system in Bucks. However, we remain to be convinced that a one-size-fits-all approach of a county-wide unitary will provide positive long-term outcomes for our communities. Buckinghamshire is a great place to live and work but it could be even better with the right system of local government.
Much like in Dorset, we’ve kept an open mind and started with the view that the answer isn’t clear cut. As a result, we’ve been able to engage our key stakeholders and use their views to help shape our thinking, whilst gaining some local consensus along the way. Of the 146 organisations who have given us formal feedback, 27 per cent wanted the current county administrative area, while 73 per cent favoured a multi-unitary option.
The difference between the north and south of Buckinghamshire is significant. Particularly in terms of the economy, jobs and housing markets, demographics, and even the topographical geography. We are effectively sliced in two by the natural barrier of the Chiltern Hills. We believe these distinctly different communities, north and south of this division, will be best served by the creation of two new, more locally accountable, unitary councils – one in the north, alongside Milton Keynes Council, and the other in the south covering the three southern districts. Naturally, this would see the abolition of the five councils that currently operate on a two tier basis. This will also save nearly £58 million over a five year period.
Where the County Council currently has two economic masters, these two new unitary councils won’t feel the pressures like they currently do, and will each instead be able to focus on one economic geography – the northern unitary to the Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford corridor and the southern unitary to the Thames Valley and West of London economy. We believe that two new councils can engage better and be more able to focus on their local communities and the specific services they need. They will in turn benefit more from those very different economic opportunities than one single unitary ever could.
This north-south divide offers the best opportunity to push through the current administrative boundary constraints and facilitate significant growth and productivity for each area. And with thriving economies and resilient communities, these new unitaries have the best chance of long-term sustainability.
The districts in Buckinghamshire have formally submitted our proposal. We understand that a decision will not now be made until March to allow the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, to properly consider the options.
We are confident our proposal offers better prospects for jobs, growth and new homes delivery, whilst giving our residents strong leadership, lower governance costs, and more accountable decision-making.