Is the future unitary for English Councils?

Two counties have been in the news recently about plans to carve out new unitary authorities from existing district and county councils. Northamptonshire County Council made headlines last month as it was declared effectively bankrupt. A report recommended scrapping the county and its constituent districts and replacing them with two new unitary authorities in 2020, one for the east and one for the west of the county. Elsewhere, Sajid Javid announced that he was minded to approve plans for a single unitary authority in Buckinghamshire.

Will other councils across England follow suit? And what will the creation of unitary authorities mean for existing planning policies in these areas?

At present the two tiers of local government district and county have separate responsibilities. The district makes decisions on housing, refuse collection, council tax, planning and car parking amongst others whilst county councils make decisions on transport, highways, social services and education. This separation of powers is one reason why MP David Lidington welcomed the plans for a new unitary authority in Buckinghamshire stating “the district takes decisions about housing and planning but it’s the county council that has to plan for roads, schools and social services…getting rid of that confusion will be a good thing”.

Confusion aside, the creation of unitary authorities has the potential to save lots of money for local taxpayers, a prize eyed by Conservative councillors and MPs alike. In the ongoing age of austerity local councils are having to make further cuts to budgets, all part of the governments drive to eliminate the budget deficit and bring down debt. Javid explained his support for a new unitary authority in Buckinghamshire by asserting ‘a new single council would be likely to improve local government … and save local taxpayers money’. Lidington agreed stating the ‘management and administrative costs of one council will be less than those of five’. Buckinghamshire County Council estimates that over five years £58million could be saved by the creation of a new Buckinghamshire unitary.

With obvious financial benefits outlined in Buckinghamshire and to a lesser extent in Northamptonshire where two authorities are needed to ensure they are truly local, could unitary councils become more widespread? It seems the answer is yes. Already approved are two new unitary authorities in Dorset, one for Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch and one for the rest of the county. Moreover there appears to be support for this direction of travel amongst Conservative councillors, activists and MPs. In recent years there has been a plethora of articles on ConservativeHome advocating this very idea and the influential book ‘The Plan’ by Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell MP argued that current powers devolved to Scotland could certainly be devolved to new unitary authorities.

In a new age of unitary authorities the council areas become bigger, meaning councillors from more rural parts of a county may successfully lobby to protect greenbelt and push housing to the more urban areas where it is deemed the infrastructure can cope and greenbelt destruction is less of a threat. Equally, the greater number of councillors that will be representing more urban areas will have a greater vote when it comes to deciding where housing is to be allocated and built. One can easily imagine a situation where an area represented by an opposition party starts getting lots of housing allocated to it.

The longer the Conservative party are in office unitary authorities may become more likely as support for them is growing across both the voluntary and professional wings of the party. Moreover Conservative Party policy remains to reduce spending in order to reduce the deficit and the debt. Thus the longer government budget cuts bite; the more likely it is that housebuilders could be dealing with more unitary authorities in five to ten years’ time across England.