Cllr Katrina Wood is the Leader of Wycombe District Council.
Unitary status has been a hot topic in Buckinghamshire for more than two years now. This is since the County Council sent their proposal for a single unitary to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in September 2016, with the district councils following with their proposition for two unitary councils in January 2017.
Many months followed before there came a “minded to” decision in March 2018, which then allowed for a further period for representations. We know there were over three thousand representations to the Secretary of State which resulted in several more months of waiting before the final decision.
So, more than two years since this all started, we finally received the decision from the Secretary of State on 1 November 2018 detailing the way forward.
Having championed a two unitary council proposal along with the three other district councils in Bucks, which we knew had a great deal of support amongst our residents and businesses – and based on what we thought would be better for them and the overall economy – we were naturally disappointed when the decision was in favour of a single unitary council for Buckinghamshire.
However, with the decision promising a brand-new district unitary authority – not a continuing authority – the district councils united behind the Minister’s decision to create a single unitary council in Buckinghamshire by 1st April 2020, despite what you may have heard from other sources.
We were excited to be part of a process that would create something new and special for Buckinghamshire that wouldn’t just be a rehash of something old. We looked forward to being able to create something for our residents that would stand the test of time and provide improved services and experiences for everyone that lives and works in Buckinghamshire. We didn’t want an off the shelf product that would be the same old, same old. We wanted to bring together the best ideas, the best practises, and indeed the best of everything to ensure a sound innovative basis on which to build the future of local government in Buckinghamshire and which will be sustainable for many years to come.
Now bringing five councils together and forming one new unitary council is not a task to be underestimated, especially in the timescales allowed. I am sure that colleagues in Dorset would agree with this – and colleagues in Northamptonshire will soon be able to discover for themselves. There is an enormous amount of work involved, all of which must be done whilst keeping the day to day business of the existing councils functioning normally.
The task of forming the new council, has however been made more difficult by government “interference” on decisions which should be made locally, such as predetermining the leader of the shadow executive and not allowing a partnership of equals in the formation of this new council. We believe this is in direct conflict with the principles of democracy that we live and breathe as elected members. Elected being the operative word. The end we are fully supportive of; it’s the means that we have an issue with.
Another issue is the delay of the laying of the structural change orders from January until March, which in turn delays decision making by the yet to be formed shadow authority and shadow executive. This will mean we will effectively have around 10 months to get the new council up and running.
So, what was already a tight timetable has now been squeezed even more, and with the original proposals now over two years old, we should be reviewing and amending them to ensure we have a model based on excellence that will provide a sustainable Local Government for the world of 2019 and beyond.
There is a very short space of time to set this new council up, so we shouldn’t be running before we can walk. Our mantra for the new council has to be – Safe, Legal and Operational. That is what we must aim for on 1 April 2020, and that is what we must make sure we deliver. Anything else would be incredibly ambitious and a bonus.