Unitary Authority

by Carol Linton on 18 March, 2018

 

In 2017, I wrote this blog.

Local Government in Buckinghamshire is going to be reorganised into a single tier, which has many advantages.

  • All local government services provided by one organisation – a one stop shop, reducing confusion on who does what and whom to contact
  • Higher levels of satisfaction with unitary authorities
  • Better integration of housing development with roads and infrastructure changes
  • Financial savings by avoiding duplication of managers, departments and buildings

The debate is whether to have one unitary authority for the whole of the Buckinghamshire County Council (BCC) area, or two authorities, one for the Vale of Aylesbury and one for the southern area (currently South Bucks, Chiltern, Wycombe areas). Milton Keynes remains separate in both options.

BCC proposes one authority to take over all the county and district responsibilities, which allows the poorly performing services to continue as now. The District Councils recommend the two authorities option, which recognises the differences between the north and south of the county and ensures that the services are reorganised and the service improved.

Details of the one authority option can be found here http://futurebucks.co.uk/ . The two authorities option is here https://www.modernisingbucks.org/.

The Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, is minded to accept the one authority option but will accept representations on the matter until May 25th 2018. The final decision is subject to Parliamentary approval, email: [email protected]

Also write to your MP:

for Beaconsfield, [email protected]:

for Chesham and Amersham, [email protected]:

for Wycombe, [email protected]

District Council response

The District Councils have said “we will be making the strongest possible representations to the Secretary of State that this decision is not the right one. We don’t believe that this decision is in the best interest of our local residents, businesses, community groups, parish councils and various other stakeholders across the county and, based on our own engagement, we don’t believe it has strong local support.”

It is unclear why the ‘minded to’ decision has been made and what will change the Secretary of State’s mind. Here are some considerations.

Size

The two separate unitary authorities would have populations of 190K and 345K, larger than most unitary authorities. A single unitary authority for the whole BCC area would have a population of 535K, making it the 2nd largest in the country, behind Cornwall.

This suggests that the two authorities option is preferable.

Homogeneity

The BCC area splits into very different regions, with different development potential requirements. This again suggests the two authorities option better addresses local concerns.

Aylesbury Vale (the northern region) lies on the edge of the Midlands and is mainly rural. It links into the Oxford Cambridge expansion zone. BCC has planned most of the future development and investment in that region with new towns and business opportunities.

The southern region lies in the Chiltern Hills stretching down to the Thames. It consists of closely spaced towns and villages surrounded by conservation areas and sites of special interest. Transport links such as the M4, M40, the Chiltern line and new Elizabeth line create demand for smaller scale housing development. The ageing infrastructure needs updating for the 21st Century, and future planned investment by BCC is very limited. The southern region is subject to expansion pressures from Slough and Maidenhead. A strong local authority is required to resist those unique pressures.

Current Services provided by County

The existing BCC services provide poor levels of satisfaction in all areas. Continuing the status quo is the easy option, but a reorganisation for two authorities would force a renegotiation of the out-sourcing contracts and improvement to the services.

  • Adult Social services are ranked in the bottom third nationally on satisfaction.
  • A commissioner has been appointed to oversee Children’s Social care, which has been failing Ofsted inspections since 2012. All the proposed Children’s Homes are near Aylesbury, with nothing in the south.
  • Road maintenance is at the bottom of the national tables. Some roads are impassable in a normal car due to the number and depth of the potholes. The roads in the south cannot cater for the volume of traffic and there are regularly 30 minutes queues to get on the motorways. The stated BCC policy is that no improvements are considered as that would encourage rat runs through narrow lanes.
  • The educational gap for disadvantaged children is of concern to BCC and no cause has been identified. The number of children in special schools is higher than in comparable areas which adds to the cost of schooling and school transport.
  • The children’s centres are losing all their funding in July 2018 but there are no plans yet on how to continue support for the non-mandated services.
  • Only 60% of non-selective schools are rated adequate by Ofsted. Looked after children are more likely to attend a good school than local children because they are housed out of county (as stated in a BCC meeting!).
  • BCC has aimed to provide a statutory minimum level of service for several years (their own guidelines), so that no preventative measures are taken to help families before they become problems, or children before they need additional help. The Children’s Centres are closing before any plans are in place to support families. The initiation and completion of Education, Health and Care plans (EHCPs) are delayed by schools (because they are not seen as worth the effort) and by BCC by understaffing.

Local Accountability

Two unitary authorities provide councils situated in towns more central to their population. Currently Aylesbury is nearly an hour drive from the south of the county, and rarely visited by the residents. It looks and feels different, so it is no surprise that the BCC doesn’t appear to react to local demands from the south. The existing BCC portfolio councillors and managers have proved reluctant to visit the south to understand local problems.

Local Area Forums

The BCC proposal for one authority mentions local forums/ hubs but doesn’t provided details of funding or how demands for action will be processed.

The existing Local Area Forums are currently chaired by BCC councillors and manned by district and parish councillors. They are not directly elected to the forum. The forums have minimal funding (a few thousand a year) to clear a footpath or put up a bollard. Their discussions have little impact on directing the services provided by BCC.

Parish Councils

There have been attempts recently to devolve responsibilities to parish councils for many services, but no funding has been provided. It is seen as a way of increasing the council tax through the parish precept and avoiding government caps.

Many parishes are too small to undertake the work required in a safe and ongoing manner.

Conclusion

The Secretary of State should consider the views of the majority of residents and decide on two unitary authorities. This gives the accepted benefits of a single tier of local government, considerable financial savings and provide two councils of average size that can reflect on the two very different environments: one bordering the Midlands and the other in the Chiltern Hills stretching down to the Thames: one with room to create new towns and the other consisting of closely spaced towns and villages in conservation areas, under pressure from the Berkshire unitary authorities to expand urban areas into the green belt. A full reorganisation and review of services will also address the poor service levels of so many departments.

 

 

 

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