The two-tier system of local government, which has persisted throughout much of England since 1974, is coming under strain due to local government budgets being cut by 60 per cent during the last 10 years, which has come as a direct result of the Conservatives’ austerity measures.
Consequently, counties across the country still using the two-tier system are making arrangements to install unitary authorities in their place, and a White Paper on Devolution, set to be released by the government next month, will set out plans that will likely result in unitary authorities replacing counties and districts across all of England by 2023.
Last week, Conservative-controlled Somerset County Council voted in favour of replacing itself and all four districts in Somerset with a unitary authority, and county councils across England, from Lancashire to Surrey, have proposed “unitarisation” plans whereby they and all district councils under their remit will be replaced with one, two, or three unitary authorities by 2023.
The unitarisation of county councils, and the splitting of county councils into unitary authorities, began in 2009 when Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire either became single unitary authorities with no underlying districts or were replaced by two separate unitary authorities. Dorset followed suit in 2019 when most of Dorset became a unitary authority with Christchurch merging with Bournemouth and Poole. Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire are the latest councils to follow the unitarisation path.
There is a political aspect to this unitarisation – it almost always favours the Conservatives more than any other political party, and Green Party councillors have lost seats as a direct result of unitarisations of counties.
Local devolution is essential given how badly the centralisation of key services has failed communities, but large unitary councils based more on arbitrary minimum population requirements than local needs are not the solution and will in the long-term cause more problems in terms of remoteness and accountability, as seen in Cornwall and Shropshire.
Reports show that the criteria for new unitary authorities will be a population of at least 300,000, even though the majority of extant unitary authorities have populations lower than this and have proved to be viable. Chronic underfunding and councils being forced to cut services to a bare statutory minimum are the bigger problems, as highlighted by the case of Northamptonshire County Council going bankrupt in 2019, yet central government is unwilling to plug the gaps in council funding, and is instead planning to hand planning and transport powers to “Metro Mayors” in return for funding which will not make up for the cuts local councils have suffered since the Conservatives took office in 2010.
We believe that proper local devolution means allowing for powers to be transferred down to current districts and parishes, so that circular, localised, sustainable districts can be created, as well as for the reversal of cuts so that councils can fund localised green revivals in their area, since a Green recovery is what is needed most post-coronavirus.
The imposition of new unitary authorities from Whitehall will not result in real devolution but rather a greater centralisation of power in major cities and conurbations, to the detriment of local communities, the countryside, and the environment.
Alan Borgars is a Green Party activist and elections analyst.