Budget cuts crisis signals call for local government change

The council chamber at County Hall, Chichester ENGSUS00120130416123201
The council chamber at County Hall, Chichester ENGSUS00120130416123201
  • Council cuts prompt call for action
  • Some favour unitary authorities
  • County council ‘keen to explore’ options

Deep cuts to local government coffers have prompted calls for a new way of working for councils.

A proposal to scrap district, borough and parish councils in favour of a county-wide unitary authority were dismissed by West Sussex County councillors last year.

W21801H14''Mike Glennon SUS-140527-174042001

W21801H14''Mike Glennon SUS-140527-174042001

A promised public debate on the idea never materialised but Liberal Democrat county councillor Bob Smytherman believes now is the time for change.

Mr Smytherman favours unitary authorities but hopes to find a solution to help mitigate millions of pounds of cuts expected to be made by the county council in the next few years.

He said: “Last time, it came as a motion for UKIP and clearly the Conservatives wanted to support it but couldn’t.

“Most people know you can’t carry on salami-slicing funds for public services year after year. I’ve been elected since 2002 and every year we are cutting more and more out of that budget.

“That’s fine for the first few years but when you get beyond the low-hanging fruit you get into front-line services.”

My Smytherman, who represents Tarring division in Worthing, hopes to persuade fellow Lib Dem colleagues to push the issue with new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clark.

He believes Mr Clark, as an advocate of localism, could be more open to new unitary authorities than predecessor Eric Pickles.

UKIP West Sussex leader Mike Glennon tabled the cost-saving motion last February, declaring ‘the co-existence of parish, district, borough and county councils is a luxury the people of West Sussex cannot afford as we move into an austere future’.

The Lib Dems proposed a similar motion but eventually agreed with a Tory amendment, which agreed for the debate to take place.

West Sussex Lib Dem leader, Arun District councillor and Littlehampton town councillor Dr James Walsh agreed with Mr Smytherman.

He said: “At a time of increasing local Government austerity, one way to save huge amounts of money would be to have one or two unitary authorities for West Sussex. “Why do we need eight chief executives for boroughs, districts and counties? Why do we need separate call centres, separate billing authorities for council tax, large procurement departments and transport fleets?

“The time is now right to do it.”

The county council is facing budget cuts of £68 million over the next two years amid a significant drop in funding from central Government.

A move to a unitary structure would cut the need for numerous highly-paid chief executives and provide a more streamlined service for residents.

But the Lib Dems would have to convince Conservative colleagues before any reorganisation was progressed.

Conservative county councillor for Storrington Philip Circus said he was open to the possibility, having worked in a unitary-style authority in London.

He said a new unitary authority could benefit from economies of scale and improve the democratic process by removing confusion over which authority was responsible for which department.

He added: “I personally think one day there will be unitary authorities imposed on the whole of the United Kingdom.

“What you need is a local government that is not too big to be disengaged from its local populous but big enough to enable the efficient management of public services.”

At last year’s county council debate, Midhurst independent councillor Gordon McAra compared the UKIP motion to a previous one from the party where they attempted to get the EU flag removed from county hall.

He told councillors he found the idea of a single unitary authority ‘scary’ and too large.

Speaking this week, he said two or three authorities would be more appealing but not all unitaries had been successful.

“(To deal with) the massive cuts we are taking, we have a mechanism to put up council tax which they have not done for four years, so in some respects, they are the creators of their own problems.

“They have to recognise if there are cuts they have created some of the reasons.

“There is a unitary authority in Cornwall and I’m not convinced it is one of the most successful.”

Sompting Parish councillor Chris Servante has long argued his village is a forgotten land and he fears this would not be improved with a move to a unitary authority.

But he conceded residents were confused about the multiple tiers of local government.

He said: “Sompting is a little village totally forgotten by Adur and is quite forgotten by West Sussex County Council, so without having the parish council we would just get totally left in the dark.

“The biggest problem is that a lot of residents themselves have no idea who to go to.

While not appearing to outwardly encourage unitary projects, the Government has been more open to devolution.

Using Manchester as the pilot, the northern city will be given greater powers to control its own budget.

Under the proposals, an elected mayor would be appointed, with the changes expected to come into force by 2017.

In a speech on Thursday, chancellor George Osborne revealed his intention to offer devolution deals to other major cities, stating the ‘old model’ of running everything from London was ‘broken’.

He said: “The old model of trying to run everything in our country from the centre of London is broken. It’s led to an unbalanced economy. It’s made people feel remote from the decisions that affect their lives. It’s not good for our prosperity or our democracy.”

A spokesman for West Sussex County Council said: “‘We’re keen to explore all opportunities for local and regional collaboration when it comes to local government working.”