29 August, 2017
Communities secretary Sajid Javid will deliver his verdict on unitary proposals in Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Oxfordshire “as soon as practicable”, the Department for Communities & Local Government has told LGC. Announcements had been expected soon after the general election, but were put on hold after the Conservatives failed to secure a majority. Since then the new parliamentary arithmetic has made it harder for ministers to force contentious reorganisation proposals through.
Local government sources close to the discussions have told LGC they believe the Future Dorset plans – which would create two unitaries from nine councils - stand the best chance of being approved, due in part to there being the greatest amount of consensus among the councils involved. In early June, prior to the election, LGC reported that DCLG had recommended to the prime minister that Dorset’s reorganisation bid be approved and were awaiting a decision from Number 10. However, an intervention by sceptical Christchurch MP Christopher Chope (Con) was said to have led to a decision being delayed. Rebecca Knox (Con), Dorset CC’s leader, said: “We hope to get an announcement this autumn, following parliamentary recess.”
There is less optimism in Buckinghamshire that a decision on competing proposals for either a single county unitary or two unitaries is imminent.
Martin Tett (Con), leader of Buckinghamshire CC, said: “We continue to believe a positive decision in favour of a county unitary would significantly advance some of the key strategic initiatives, such as the Oxford to Cambridge corridor and the expansion of Heathrow, but this uncertainty is undermining the success of these areas.”
A DCLG spokesperson said: “The secretary of state is carefully considering the proposals submitted by Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Oxfordshire, and will announce an initial decision on how he is minded to proceed as soon as practicable.”
The comments come as two district councils in Devon have been told to file their application to merge by October or risk ministers running out of time to approve it in this parliament, in line with a 2019 deadline for government to sanction reorganisation bids set out in the the Cities & Local Government Act 2016.
South Hams DC and West Devon BC, which already share managements and services, propose to merge from April 2019 to help to close projected budget gaps by 2020 of £800,000 and £1.1m respectively.
Merging would save an extra £500,000 a year and form a council would coverinf 789 square miles, making it the second largest district by size in England, a report for both councils stated. However, the report added there was ”no current appetite locally for a unitary council in Devon (and the unitary agenda is not currently being pushed by central government)”.
A Devon CC spokesman said the council would ”watch and listen to the discussions with interest”.
However, the report warned both districts must proceed rapidly: “If the councils do not submit their proposal to the secretary of state in October 2017 (to allow time for ministerial consideration and for making the relevant regulations by July 2018), then the DCLG has advised it is very unlikely that there will be sufficient parliamentary time for consideration of any single-council proposals during this parliament because of the government’s Brexit commitments.”
A DCLG spokesman said: “Parliamentary time is a factor in the timetable for any potential council mergers.”
Forest Heath DC and St Edmundsbury BC are expected to apply this autumn to merge as West Suffolk, while Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs have already expressed their intention to unite as East Suffolk. Taunton Deane BC and West Somerset DC have also applied to merge but Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) is a vocal opponent of the plans.
John Fuller (Con), District Councils’ Network chair, told LGC: “It seems that the secretary of state will require unanimity [for mergers and unitary proposals] not just from the councils involved but local MPs. Councils cannot assume they alone will be the only decision-makers as the views of local MPs will also carry great weight.”