Experts call for new conditions on unitary authorities
Embargoed: 00:01 Tuesday 2nd July
As the Local Government Association conference begins in Bournemouth, the TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) recommends a new framework for the creation of unitary authorities across England.
With insights from elections expert, Lord Robert Hayward, TPA analysis released today identifies the conditions which should be met to ensure long term cost savings, while preserving democratic accountability and good corporate governance.
If the remaining 27 county areas in England were to become unitary authorities, projected savings of almost £3 billion could be realised over a five year period.(1) This is in addition to evidence showing that substantial savings have already been made in administrative and back office functions for councils that became unitary authorities in 2009. Further piecemeal creations of unitary authorities are being considered across England.
Based on cross party input, including from elected councillors and council officials, the TPA recommends:
- Proposals based on long-term cost-saving projections, not short-term political imperatives. Future assumed savings need to be clearly laid out, not merely in administrative areas of spending and not as a knee-jerk response to obvious mismanagement in existing structures.
- Appropriate levels of corporate governance. There is no statutory requirement for English councils to have an audit committee. The greater use of commercial investments to resource service delivery provides a clearer imperative to set up such institutions within councils, especially those desiring unitary status.
- Effective use of community councils, or similar bodies. The use of town councils and area action partnerships serve as a model for engagement with residents, while seemingly not alienating residents because of a larger structure and fewer councillors. Such structures need to be put in place before transferring to a unitary.
One of the councillors interviewed for the paper, Cornwall Council's deputy leader, Liberal Democrat Cllr Adam Paynter, told the TPA that whilst there is a risk of the largest unitaries becoming too unwieldy, more should be supported:
“I would say that all areas, if it was my job and I was the minister for MHCLG, I would make everywhere a unitary.”
Writing the foreword to the research, Conservative peer and elections analyst Lord Robert Hayward commented:
"If you were to start with a clean slate and design a system of local governance, you wouldn’t end up with as many councils as small as the ones we have today.
"This report explores the arguments, with local taxpayers’ interests firmly in mind. The attractions of long-term cost savings, implemented alongside appropriate levels of corporate governance and effective models for engagement with residents, may prove too good for local authorities to pass up.
"Whatever changes are to happen, these must be undertaken more coherently than they have thus far. Changes have been piecemeal, sometimes creating problems which would not otherwise exist with a more strategic and considered approach to a nationwide move towards a single tier system."
John O'Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said:
"Creating yet more unitary authorities is clearly the way the wind is blowing across England, but they're not a silver bullet to the deep problems facing some councils.
"Councillors should approach the proposals with their eyes firmly open, making sure they have a clear plan for realising savings for the taxpayer while preserving democratic engagement with their local residents. Sleepwalking into a single tier system can be the worst of all worlds.
"This new analysis should provide any councils thinking about becoming a unitary with the roadmap they will need, to build a new system of local government which works for both the voter and the taxpayer."
(1) EY, Independent Analysis of Governance Scenarios and Public Service Reform in County Areas, 2016, p. 2.
TPA spokesmen are available for live and pre-recorded broadcast interviews via 07795 084 113 (no texts)
Campaign Manager, TaxPayers' Alliance
24-hour media hotline: 07795 084 113 (no texts)
Notes to editors:
- Founded in 2004 by Matthew Elliott and Andrew Allum, and now with 80,000 supporters, the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) fights to reform taxes, reduce spending and protect taxpayers. Find out more about the TaxPayers' Alliance at www.taxpayersalliance.com.
- TaxPayers' Alliance's advisory council.
- Earlier this year, the TaxPayers' Alliance produced its annual Town Hall Rich List, which details the full remuneration and many of the names of all local council employees whose remuneration exceeds £100,000.
- Recent data from the Local Government Association has shown that more than £1 billion has already been saved by councils sharing services.