Breaking county councils up into smaller unitary authorities would fragment key services, including transport, potentially worsening them at a time of rising demand, a top county council leader has warned.
The County Councils Network (CCN), which represents England’s 27 county councils (and 10 county unitaries), has published two reports on local government reorganisation, one of which looks back to previous rounds while the other examines six potential scenarios for future reorganisation.
CCN chairman Cllr Paul Carter
The second report, by consultants EY, finds that creating 27 countywide unitary authorities could save £2.9bn nationally over five years, on average up to £106m per county, while abolishing county and district councils to create two unitary authorities per county could save £1.7bn nationally.
It assesses that creating three unitaries per county could save around £500m.
CCN chairman Cllr Paul Carter said that the organisation was ‘neither for nor against reorganisation’ although the research ‘should form an important reference point should central Government have an appetite for the reorganisation of local government’.
He said: ‘But a clear conclusion from the report is that there are real risks in splitting up the historic counties of England, in terms of both savings and maintaining good public services. Instead, the evidence strongly suggests the most effective means of structural reform – whether through unitary or two tier models – are those that build on the scale and geography of county councils.'
Cllr Carter added: ‘Sub-county unitary options would fragment the services that matter to residents, potentially worsening them at a time when we can ill-afford to with demand rising, and could be an ineffective use of public money.’
Cllr Neil Clarke, chairman of the District Councils’ Network (DCN), said: ‘Although this report raises some valid questions about public services and local economies in district and county areas, there should be a greater focus on placed-based public service reform, examining the benefit of clustering within, or even across county boundaries, to further reflect economic geography and natural communities.'
He added: ‘As a network, the DCN is clear that when it comes to devolution it should be for local areas to determine what works best for their locality and many of our members have demonstrated an appetite for the transformation of local services where there is local need and consensus. One size does not fit all.’
The other options analysed in the EY report are: three unitaries per county but with joint delivery arrangements for service such as transport; shared support services across at least two county boundaries; and merging districts within the two tier system.
On the issue of public sector reform, the report also finds that areas like social care and health integration, devolution, economic growth, transport, crime, and financial viability and sustainability would also benefit from ‘the scenarios that were characterised by maximum scale’, among other issues.
The report looking back at previous reorganisation concludes that larger councils with a higher population or geographical footprint 'are better placed to deliver economies of scale and divert more money towards protecting key frontline services'.
Read more on this story on our sister publication, the MJ.