At Council this evening two Conservatives put forward a motion to look at going to a unitary Council - they withdrew it as the County are also looking at that issue. However Greens would not have supported the move as it was suggested. Here are some notes of what I might have said:
The motion implies there will be benefits to going unitary - indeed it is repeatedly suggested that they can cut costs by providing larger efficient services. In my view creating larger authorities comes at a potentially significant loss – less democracy, less local identity, less personal, less responsive, less innovative, less accountable and in the long run less effective where people are even less likely to know their councilor.
Indeed I understand in 2 surveys a while back regarding Gloucestershire it was said that the County was ‘too remote’.
We have the lowest number of councilors in Europe. It is also interesting that only smaller countries in Europe like Finland, Greece and Portugal have moved to unitary – while Germany has been devolving powers to truly local authorities.
Of course there are likely to be benefits if the County were to devolve some services like road maintenance to the District. However I think there is much more to be gained by challenging the Government regarding their restrictions that impact on local decision making – some improvements have come but there have also been steps backwards.
Look at the history; there have been many attempts to give power back to more local government….elected mayors, ‘earned autonomy’, Regional Development Agencies, Local Economic Partnerships, the big Society and more…..yet it seems Whitehall policy-makers cannot let go of the levers of power – the talk of devolution has rarely been matched by reality. In fact we seem to be an ever-more target-driven, power concentrating culture. Localism remains inherently limited….
Look at what has happened to planning….local people expect us to represent them yet time and time again we have to give more weight to government policy statements than our own planning policies. Maybe this is where those proposing this Motion could put their energies?
In summary I would support looking at this issue at some point if we were really looking at true localism - but I don’t believe now is the right time. We have just made one of the most significant changes to our Council by moving to a committee system – this must be allowed to embed. I therefore can’t support this motion.