Cllr Gavin Chambers is a councillor for Buckhurst Hill West on Epping Forest District Council.
Every year, the same story is told by Local Government, rightly, about cuts in resources and in many cases the loss of central government funding, placing the burden on local Council Tax and Business Rates. Surely the time has come for honesty: local government cannot continue as it is. It has been a disaster since the major reorganisation of 1974 under Edward Heath. Since then there have been piecemeal changes, with 46 unitary authorities created between April 1995 and April 1998 and further tinkering in 2009, where a number of counties became single unitary authorities.
That 1974 reorganisation resulted in amalgamations but also in some cases in an increase in councils, with many parish councils being formed, some rather grandly calling themselves town councils, but having only parish responsibility. As a result, in many areas there are three tiers of local authority, parish, district and county and the cost has spiralled out of control. A parish, has one statutory duty, to provide allotment gardens, under legislation dating back to the 19th century and while they may take on other functions this is at a cost to residents, as all funding is met by local tax.
There are parishes with a precept that is half of the district precept, and most of the money is spent on staff, just to run occasional meetings and administer allotments, whilst the district council runs often a hundred services, including Planning, Licensing, Waste Collection and Environmental services. Of course, parish councils campaign and are consultees on many issues including planning but they are not the responsible authority, making it easy to oppose or support any proposal. But with authority comes responsibility, which members at higher tier level must remember, as they do in matters such as planning and licensing decisions.
However, the overlap is in the eyes of the public a matter of bemusement. Whilst a district sweeps the street, the county maintains it, and occasionally repairs potholes, and clears out drains, but often the district has to clear the leaves away from the top. In some areas all three councils cut the grass and trim trees, even in the same street. Why many will ask, does a county council have some very restricted planning powers when the vast majority are in the remit of districts? I have heard it said that the current composition of councils and their powers was designed deliberately to ensure powers were divided, and not too much authority was given to local government.
Surely the time has come for an open and honest review, with a view to reducing cost and streamlining services. Small counties with the three-tier system have a thousand plus councillors – is that necessary?
The only way to save may be to abolish all current tiers and replace with reasonable sized unitaries, that have responsibility for all local services. Counties are having less and less to deal with, as government propose Fire Services being transferred to the Police Commissioners who replaced Police Authorities upon which County Councillors sat, and many schools becoming free schools. A unitary for a local area, maybe with 25,0000 residents could provide a local comprehensive service, and need not be set on old county boundaries, remember Slough was in Bucks until 1974 and became part of Berks, and Monmouth was in England.
If under one authority, that body needs to be local and accessible. Surrey has a county hall situated in London, not even in the county and many parts in the south are closer to West Sussex County Hall than Kingston on Thames. There should be some connection between the council and residents.
Residents in two or three tier areas have no idea which council has authority for or provides which service. Potholes are county, waste collection district, allotments parish, if there is one, a really chaotic situation, almost out of ‘Yes Minister’. Moaning about lack of funds will not achieve anything, so now is the time to look at major cost cutting options that also streamlines local government services before it is too late and central government takes over having starved local government of funds but it does need wide consultation and thought.
In Dorset proposals have been very unpopular in part, where Christchurch, formally in Hampshire, has been opposed to a county wide unitary or amalgamating with the large neighbouring unitary boroughs. Care needs to be taken to keep natural communities together and not to create councils with no natural connection as often happened in 1974. Parish councils cost millions of pounds a year, some county councils are remote, a well organised local unitary could provide all services and save millions. At the very least let’s say goodbye to parish and town councils.