Pickles was asked at a webchat yesterday whether he would block future Unitary Bids. He said he would look at the matter again once the current round of city deals was concluded. Cleared the scale of cuts in local government is putting back on the agenda potential savings from mergers, shared services and unitarisation.
However for planning the real issue is no City Deals. Most metropolitan districts in combined authority type areas can deal with their own growth, or as in Brum and London either have already strategic planning (London) and / or overspill to outside the combined area. City Deals are irrelevant to the shires, they want a piece of the cake. The theory was of course under the NPPF that authorities would spontaneously form groupings to sort out housing overspill. Two years later it seems like discussions have only just begun and authorities are discombobulating. Just look at the story below re Oxfordshire, Northhamptonshire and Buckinghamshire the top place where Garden Cities will need to go. Spontaneous order will not emerge, even if as the DCLG seeks this is ‘incentivised’ this is pissing in the wind. What is needed is a plan and some leadership.
As a contribution I think we can distinguish between three things:
1) Where unitaries make sense. Such as in West/East Northamptonshire. Within 5 years either counties will be abolished, they will abolish themselves or we just let old people get bedsores and children get abused. A 19th century local government structure is a luxury we can no longer afford.
2) Where joint strategic planning makes sense. Such as in MKSM. Where unitaries would form combined authorities. Gideon should refuse to fund these unless they have majority voting structures.
3) Strategic Plans regarding overspill and regional connectivity from/to Major Cities such as London, Brum and Bristol. Which would be jointly commissoned by 2) bodies and the SoS would play an oversight role in cases of dispute.
This variable geometry approach would make much more sense than trying to unscramble the omlette of abolished regions – which never worked well anyway (outside the East Midlands) and inevitably broke down into a series of sub-regional cabals.
Plans for a “landmark” tri-county combined authority have been unveiled in the same week one of its districts launched a unitary bid and three others announced plans to adopt a ‘confederal’ structure.
In the highest profile example so far of shire England seeking to adopt similar structures to those that have led to urban areas being offered devolved power by ministers, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire CCs launched a bid to create the first cross-county combined authority.
This would gain powers and resources over transport, skills, economic development and strategic planning.
Speaking to LGC, Northamptonshire leader Jim Harker (Con) said: “We have had talks with [communities secretary] Eric Pickles and others and we have had an encouraging response. It’s up to us now to work out the detail and put it to them.”
Buckinghamshire leader Martin Tett (Con) said the announcement was a “signal of intent”, while Oxfordshire leader Ian Hudspeth (Con) said it was about “setting down a marker”.
Cllr Tett said: “This would be a landmark as far as driving devolution to the non-metropolitan areas. We are, in many respects, the economic powerhouse of this country.”
A joint document said the gross value added measure of the value of goods and services produced in the three counties totalled £45bn – “roughly equivalent” to that of Greater Manchester.
Asked whether he had discussed the proposals with Oxfordshire’s districts, Cllr Hudspeth said: “We are still to have discussions.”
The other two leaders said they had spoken to some but not all of their districts. Cllr Harker said there was “no intention to usurp the responsibilities of district and borough councils”.
On Tuesday, the day of the tri-county announcement, Buckinghamshire’s Aylesbury Vale DC published a statement to say it wanted to investigate becoming a unitary, retaining its current boundaries. This could be a “more financially viable and customer focused alternative to the present county and district structure”.
The proposal rivals one by Buckinghamshire’s business community which in October called for the creation of a county unitary saving nearly £60m over five years.
Sue Smith, joint chief executive of Cherwell DC and South Northamptonshire DC, told LGC the tri-county press release, though not the actual documents, mentioned developing policy on spatial planning, a district responsibility.
“I will want to listen to what they say about spatial planning,” she said.
Cherwell, South Northamptonshire and Stratford-on-Avon DCs are separately considering proposals to share all services in a deal that would cross county and regional boundaries.
The three districts were due as LGC went to press to discuss the plan, which could also include a long-term ‘confederal’ structure in which services could become mutuals or companies free to trade. Ms Smith said the plan was not necessarily incompatible with the tri-county proposal.
“Councils have all kinds of different partnership arrangements and if each does what it is there to do that is fine by me,” she said.
Cllr Tett said he believed the two different proposals could work side-by-side but added “the elephant in the room is unitaries”.
He compared a situation in which districts merged back offices only for a county unitary to be created to “unscrambling an omelette”. He added: “How that would work, who knows? We haven’t got there yet but it’s going to happen and it’s one of the consequences of no guidance from above.”
Meanwhile, Northamptonshire CC unveiled plans to outsource 96% of its workforce. The move is at the centre of plans to save £148m over the next five years.