The big debate on scrapping councils and creating unitary governance

Martin Hill says, without change, important local services are being cut.
Martin Hill says, without change, important local services are being cut.
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Will a cash crisis force Lincolnshire to scrap its county council and seven district councils and opt for one tier of local government?

Tory county council leader Martin Hill wants the public to decide on county election day, May 4, when it’s likely voters will be asked if they favour switching to a unitary authority.

Coun Martin Hill

Coun Martin Hill

The county council claims unitary governance could save up to £150million in the first five years.

Other than the principle, it’s not clear what residents will vote on – whether it would be one, two or more unitary authorities covering the area now served by Lincolnshire County Council.

Coun Hill, who represents Folkingham Rural, says we can no longer afford our current system, which he describes as “complicated, wasteful and no longer financially sustainable” while South Holland and the Deepings MP John Hayes wants to stick with the status quo and seek more Government cash to fund essential services.

South Holland District Council (SHDC) leader Gary Porter is staying out of the debate until his ruling Conservative group meets on February 16 but has promised to release “a full statement” afterwards.

I don’t think we should have endless debates about the structure of local government.

South Holland and the Deepings MP John Hayes

One of Coun Porter’s SHDC deputies, Coun Nick Worth, represents Holbeach on the county council and says no district council will back the creation of a unitary authority covering the whole of the county council area but they might accept two, three or four localised authorities.

Coun Worth, who sits on the county’s ruling executive, said: “People want local services.”

Labour county councillor Phil Dilks, who represents Deeping St James, claims “smoke and mirror Tories” propose a costly reorganisation – without revealing the true cost and without telling people that decisions affecting their lives could be taken further from home.

UKIP’s Coun Richard Fairman, who represents the Spalding East and Moulton county council ward, is reserving judgment until there’s more detail. He said: “It was our party that originally put forward a suggestion that it should be looked at nearly four years ago. Obviously the devil is in the detail but we felt at the time it could lead to massive savings.”

Mr Hayes told us: “I don’t think we should have endless debates about the structure of local government.”

But the MP is ready to join fellow MPs and councils leaders to argue the case in Westminster for Lincolnshire to have more cash to keep its services running.

Coun Hill said he would welcome the backing of MPs to win extra funding.

“Last year, with the support of the MPs, we got an extra £7million but it wasn’t for every year,” said Coun Hill. “If we were able to get more money into the county that would be excellent.”

But Coun Hill now believes it would be better still if any extra cash were pumped into a more efficient system of unitary governance.

Does he favour one unitary authority to cover the area now served by Lincolnshire County Council?

“We are not really going down that road at all,” said Coun Hill. “I think the first decision is whether or not you want to go to a unitary system. Let’s talk about the principle first. There’s a possibility we could actually save money and be more efficient and, really, we ought to at least look at that idea – it would be a bit irresponsible not to even consider it.”

Coun Worth said: “I think the hope was that the county council and the districts would all come together, agree a solution and then put a proposal forward.

“As it happens, it looks like the county have put a proposal forward and put the districts on the back foot and that might not be that helpful.”

“Anybody with any sense would say if we can reform local government, and make it simpler and easier – and make more savings – and still provide quality services, why wouldn’t you look at it.”

Coun Dilks said: “Only a few months ago, in the Greater Lincolnshire devolution referendum, we were told if we voted for an extra tier of local government and a Mayor for the whole of Greater Lincs we would save money.

“But the truth was it would have cost millions extra in bureaucracy – and was rightly rejected by residents.

“Now Coun Hill is pushing again for a unitary authority for the whole of Lincolnshire without saying how much it would cost and without admitting decisions which affect people’s lives would be taken even more remotely than now.”

• What is a unitary authority?

A unitary authority takes on the role of a county and district council.

District councils, like South Holland, have duties they must perform by law and these include dealing with planning applications and collecting waste and recyling.

County council duties involve things like social services, including adult social care, and looking after highways.

Unitary authorities were first established in the early 90s. In recent years, both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have suggested a unitary system for this county.

Spalding councillor Angela Newton, who sits on the county and district councils, said: “I said at the time devolution was talked about it would have been better to consult with residents about unitary authorities replacing the existing county council and district councils.

“I would have thought it might be better to ask the district councils to enclose a questionnaire when they send out council tax papers for 2017/2018.

“At that time there is an information sheet giving the breakdown of each authorities spend, including police and drainage rates.

“Then those who don’t go to vote will have the chance to comment on the proposals.”