Cllr Katrina Wood is the Leader of Wycombe District Council.
In March, Sajid Javid, then Minister for Local Government, announced that he is minded to approve a proposal to replace the five existing local authorities in Buckinghamshire with one ‘super’ council to provide all services to the county’s 528,000 residents.
Whilst this was disappointing I welcome the Minister’s call for a period of representations until the 25th of May and the acknowledgement that more needs to be done to secure local consent before a final decision is made. This is absolutely the right thing to do.
That’s because whilst there is broad agreement that change to local government in Buckinghamshire is needed, there is significant local concern about the creation of a single authority. There are real worries that a super council would make decision-making more remote with decisions affecting the key services being made with limited local representation. It would also lead to missed growth opportunities resulting from the failure to recognise the county’s distinct economic geographies.
Buckinghamshire is naturally divided by the Chiltern Hills with two very distinct social and economic centres with different priorities.
Aylesbury in the north will be at the heart of the Oxford –Cambridge Growth Corridor and benefit from transformational infrastructure developments like East West Rail. In South Buckinghamshire, the opportunities are very different as its economic future will be focused on meeting the needs of new and growing businesses and those seeking a UK base close to London.
Hence the rationale for two councils, one for the north of the county and one for the south, reflecting the natural geography of Bucks whilst ensuring local accountability for services and a strong strategic focus on promoting economic growth, which will be significant, but distinct.
A two unitary option would provide the one-stop-shop for all services that residents want in Buckinghamshire but with the added advantages that decision-making for all areas would be more local and accountable. Services would be put on a long term sustainable footing and significant savings would be made; our financial analysis estimates a saving of £58m over five years.
Crucially, the vision for two unitaries has strong support from local people. A survey of a thousand residents commissioned by Buckinghamshire County Council last year showed 67 per cent of residents backing two unitaries. Those who supported two unitaries did so because they felt this structure would improve or maintain access to services and provide better accountability which is precisely our rationale.
I believe this evidence is a really strong endorsement of our proposal. The plans for Buckinghamshire represent the biggest change to local government in 40 years and as politicians we need to get this right. With the support of residents, parishes, community groups, and businesses, my fellow district council leaders and I believe there is an opportunity to build consensus around two new local unitaries for Bucks.