Cllr Martin Tett is the Leader of Buckinghamshire County Council.
There is widespread consensus in Buckinghamshire that the two-tier system has had its day.
The question is, should it be replaced by one county-wide unitary council, saving £18m every year, or by splitting Bucks into two, saving £10m? In March, the Government said it was minded to implement the proposal for one.
However, my district colleagues who favour two unitary councils frequently cite a telephone survey conducted in 2017 (and shared with Government prior to its announcement) which appeared to show greater public support for their proposal. We can all quote selectively from survey results. The same independent research also included an open questionnaire with more than 2,000 residents, of which almost two-thirds supported the single unitary option.
Frankly, we know that the public finds it hard to get excited about the structure of local government – they just want good quality, value for money, services delivered from accessible locations.
So for me, the most telling piece of that research is the outcome of the focus groups. The report’s authors state that ‘the vast majority of members of the public who took part in the focus groups accepted that there is a case to reduce the number of councils across Buckinghamshire from the current five – and majorities in all groups preferred Buckinghamshire County Council’s one unitary authority option to the district councils’ proposal for two unitary authorities, including some people who originally favoured two but had changed their minds’.
When you take the time to explain the pros and cons to the public, they recognise the need for scale to achieve sustainable services.
The Secretary of State agreed one new council is likely to “improve local government and service delivery in the county, generating savings, increasing financial resilience, facilitating a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges, and sustaining good local services.”
In contrast, he said that two councils are “unlikely to improve local government in the area, generate significant savings, or provide the capacity to sustain major services or to address planning and housing challenges”.
The two council proposal also falls short of statutory guidance recently issued by Government on the minimum population levels of new unitary councils, based on research into the sustainability of smaller authorities.
The proposal for one unitary council offers the most realistic opportunity to finally abolish the inefficient confusing and disjointed two-tier system and create a sustainable new future for the county, enabling money to be invested in services which matter to our residents and businesses.
I sincerely hope that the Government confirms its decision in due course.