Earlier this month Minister of State, Simon Clarke, stated that the Conservative Government is pressing ahead with the publication of its Devolution White Paper in the Autumn. The Minister stated that the Government is aiming for 'many more elected mayors and more unitary councils following in the footsteps of Dorset, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.'
Like many others, I see little merit in having elected mayors in rural areas; although the fine record of Lib Dem mayors in places like Bedford and Watford has demonstrated that they can be effective in the right localities. But unitary authorities can be more effective and more efficient than two-tier local government which many people find cumbersome and confusing.
However, in many respects the Government's timing couldn't be worse. Local councils are still struggling to get back into some form of normal working after tackling the huge challenges of the Covid pandemic and the lock-down. And there is a very real risk that Covid will re-strengthen in the Autumn adding to the problems.
Tim Farron MP, our Local Government Spokesperson, has spoken out:
'Local people will be amazed that the government are choosing this moment to force a top-down reorganisation on social care, schools and councils when instead they need to be focussing 100% on helping us to recover from this crisis. The Tories are out of touch if they think this wasteful distraction is more important than getting our communities back on their feet.'
On the other hand, despite Government support many local authorities are reeling from the financial impact of the pandemic, a consequence of significant additional costs and loss of revenue. Here in Kent, the combined impact on the County Council, Medway Council and the 12 district councils is forecast to be between £200 million and £250 million this year with more pain to come in subsequent years.
KCC is projecting an overspend of over £40 million and will be revising its budget in September. After 10 years of austerity, the last thing we want is another round of cuts, especially at a time when demand for critical front line services is likely to rise sharply. KCC is not alone. Other Kent councils are struggling to balance their books and it is rumoured that some will find it impossible.
In these circumstances, it is no surprise that councils are prepared to grab any life-line on offer. The Government knows this and is ready to exploit council leaders' predicament.
Several county councils have already expressed interest in becoming single unitary authorities, including East Sussex, Hertfordshire, Somerset and Surrey. Surrey has already submitted its initial application claiming support from all the district leaders and all MPs in the county. But there has been minimal consultation with other political groups and the residents in Surrey. However, a similar proposal has already been rebuffed by the district councils in Hertfordshire.
Kent is a much bigger proposition. The county council represents over 1.5 million residents and Medway Council is also likely to come into the equation. A single Kent unitary would be unwieldy and unworkable. But splitting Kent into two or more unitary authorities is fraught with difficulties. It's a challenge which no-one in Kent relishes.
At this month's county council meeting I asked Roger Gough, the Conservative Leader of KCC, if he would 'agree with me that Kent should only consider becoming one or more unitary councils if such a change is clearly in the best economic and social interests of Kent residents' and if he would agree that 'any such proposal for Kent needs widespread consultation and proper consideration by all affected parties?'
Roger Gough's immediate response was to agree with both parts of my question. His fuller answer is set out below.
At present Kent's Conservative leadership does not appear to be in any rush to pursue a major local government reorganisation in this county with the logistical upheaval and political challenges that would bring. But the looming financial crisis and the increasing pressure from Central Government cannot be discounted. We need to be prepared for change.