Sally-Ann Hart is the MP for Hastings and Rye and was a councillor in Rother.
The organisation of local government in the UK has changed over the centuries and much of the current structure has been in place since the Local Government Act of 1972, where the two-tier system of borough/district and counties was established. As we are working to get back on our economic feet after lockdown, we need to think expansively in the long term interests of our country. The time is right to take the opportunity to consider cutting out middle-tier district and borough councils and focus on consolidation into unitary councils, addressing some of the issues that the multi-tier system has created.
I do not suggest this lightly; my local district council, Rother, has done a remarkable job during the coronavirus crisis and thanks must be given to all the officers for the extra work that they have undertaken to provide the best possible services, work with local volunteer community groups, and safeguard the vulnerable.
However, despite the extra millions that the Government has given local authorities to cover the extra costs incurred during the coronavirus health and economic crisis, the financial situation of the majority of smaller councils is apparently unsustainable and many are calling for more funding to cover loss of income from carparks, council tax, business rates, and investment income, as a result of the lockdown.
Consolidation of district, borough, and county councils will foster the ability to drive greater efficiency and thereby save taxpayers’ money through economies of scale. Unitary authorities could also provide better social care services as counties struggle financially and look for different ways to meet what seems like ever-increasing demands. It makes sense that social care – children and adults, housing, benefits, health, and possibly police are brought under one authority with a focus on more integrated solutions.
Localism is vital in strengthening local communities. Unitary authorities do not take away from local decision-making and town and parish councils should be retained with their delegated responsibilities, as they are closer to communities. Having more regionally focussed authorities may encourage greater decentralisation by having a more joined-up approach for local government. Disagreements between the tiers of local government, due to different political philosophies, make it almost impossible to speak with one voice; something that would be more effective when dealing with or lobbying central government to address local needs.
During coronavirus, we have seen great collaboration across the country between government and local authorities, but more recently, we have also seen some ideological clashes between Labour councils, their local Conservative MPs, and the Government. Take James Daly and Christian Wakeford in Bury, where they have had to write to head teachers in their constituencies asking them to ignore the town hall’s “political grandstanding” and make their own decisions for school ‘re-opening’ on June 1st. In the north east, the Labour council leader of Gateshead urged local people to disregard the Government’s easing of lockdown restrictions and the Newcastle council leader branded the Government “deeply irresponsible” for easing restrictions.
In my constituency, Labour-controlled Hastings Borough Council has urged people to continue to ‘Stay at Home’ and have even posted ‘Hastings Closed’ signs. It has refused to open public lavatories and I have constituents emailing me about the stink of urine and human excrement in public places. At the time of writing, it has also yet to open-up its Government funded discretionary grant scheme to help local businesses.
Through all this, Labour councillors in their local fiefdoms blame the problems and deficiencies they, themselves, have caused, on the Conservative Government. There seems to be little incentive for them to help boost residents’ confidence in living with coronavirus and getting our economy back on track – they would rather play political games and make political capital than save livelihoods. Important measures, such as those that are now required, need to be determined centrally and implemented locally.
Requests to local government to adopt changes in the broader interest can be widely ignored. Asking local government to impose changes on themselves and create unitary councils would not affect the change needed. This is a decision which needs to be made and imposed by central Government.
Attracting councillors at all levels of local government has long been an issue. Many are elected unopposed and some have to be cajoled into standing. By paying a smaller number of unitary councillors commensurately for the skills he or she brings to bear, candidates of a higher or more committed calibre should be attracted to the role. This will also allow (and require) elected councillors to really focus on the very important role of being a councillor, accountable to the electorate. Support from an able and experienced permanent executive at the unitary level to provide expertise and effective financial management, advise and execute the councillors’ policies is a given.
New unitary authorities, if we get them right, can transform local government into more efficient, cost effective, and customer focused undertakings without giving up important local accountability. As we face huge changes in our ways of working, what better time is there to make local government fit for the future?