The case for unitary authorities across England

As the 2018 State of Local Government Finance Research indicates, council tax is set to rise in 95 per cent of local authorities in England in order for them to balance their budgets and provide key services.

This news comes in the week that Northampton County Council banned all new expenditures in order to control its finances and councils in across the county face shortfalls as local government funding is being squeezed.

In an age of cutting back and managing budgets, there seems to be one solution I think many councils are not seriously considering: moving to a unitary authority. This would mean that county and district councils are abolished to create one governing body for a county or local area, such as in Cornwall, Wiltshire and Herefordshire. But they do not have to be counties, they can be smaller regions or cities such as Torbay, Thurrock or Bournemouth. Recently, there have been bids and proposals from Dorset, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire to create a number of unitary authorities in these counties.

I have an interest in local government and devolution, I am writing my undergraduate dissertation on the topic and throughout my research and writing, I have realised the benefits of becoming a unitary authority.

The major benefit of moving to unitary authorities is that it saves a lot of money. Instead of funding many district councils, their staff, buildings and expenses, all of that money would be saved as there would only be one council. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who produced a number of reports for some district councils in late 2016, estimated Buckinghamshire County Council could annually save £10 million if they created two unitary authorities and £18 million from having just one county wide authority. For me, this is already enough justification for the need to move into unitary authorities. This money could be used to provide extra key services, boost education spending and boost health and social care spending without having any effects on people.

Rather than district councils having some powers and county councils having others, unitary authorities are in charge of all aspects of local government including education, health, planning, social services, cultural services and waste. This means it is easier for people living in them to know who to contact for problems and means the authority are accountable for every decision made in their area. It also means councils can strategically plan for ‘area wide’ issues such as transport, emergency services and planning in order to make more effective decisions for the area.

I agree with Lord Heseltine’s 2012 Report ‘No Stone Unturned’ which stated the case for the abolition of county and district councils in England and replacing them with unitary authorities. The report argues that unitary authorities provide faster, efficient and effective forms of local government rather than the current mixed multi-tiered system was ineffective. For example, Wiltshire Council now only spend 9 per cent of its budget on back office staff rather than 19 per cent under the two-tiered system.

Lord Heseltine – author of the ‘No Stone Unturned’ report 

In addition, by having just one authority, businesses and stakeholders could more easily speak to local councils and get decisions back. This streamlines decision making and allows for counties to be represented as one single body, rather than a collection of councils with potentially different views.

Of course, there are some criticisms of becoming unitary authorities and abolishing the two-tier system. Some argue, that under localism district councils are best placed to make decisions and govern their immediate local area best and that unitary authorities are less democratic in not directly governing local areas. While there is no denying that local leaders are best placed to understand their local areas and make decisions, no one regards Cornwall or Wiltshire as undemocratic bodies who do not know local issues.

Ultimately, in order to keep these decisions democratic, I think that the decision to become a unitary authority should rest with the people of the county or local area via referenda. Unitary authorities should not be imposed on counties who do not want them or think they would benefit from them. However, I hope that people would recognise the significant advantages of becoming unitary authorities and vote for such a move.

England is the only country in the UK to continue to have two-tiered councils. It creates a mash up of county councils, district councils, unitary authorities and that’s without Metropolitan or London Boroughs. The system of local government needs to be overhauled and universalised. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have unitary authorities and have had them for some time now. I think it is time to join them and move to Unitary Authorities.


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