Cumbria council mulls over plans for major ‘one-stop-shop’ local government reshuffle

Council members at Cumbria County Council debated yesterday the possibility of abolishing their current local government structure in favour of a much larger, single unitary council in its place.

At the council meeting in Kendal yesterday, council leader Stewart Young said then-communities secretary Sajid Javid’s approval of a similar reorganisation to Buckinghamshire County Council signalled a “sea change” in the government’s approach towards unitary proposals, despite the merger being opposed by both local MPs and councillors themselves.

There is a significant financial incentive behind the proposals to merger services: “After this year’s budget we will have saved £250m since 2011, and we’re looking to save a following £50m over the next three years,” Cllr Young said. “Local government reorganisation could be part of that change.”

Cumbria is the latest of a series of local authorities to consider the abolishment of the current two-tier structure: Nottinghamshire County Council, Northamptonshire County Council, and Leicestershire County Council have all either considered or approved plans to abolish their current structure in a bid to make savings in the past year.

Leader of the opposing Conservatives, Cllr James Airey, said that the discussion of a unitary is a result of an “over-governed and under-led” local council.

“I think the main thing is that it is about money – but it’s not all about money. I think the system that we have in Cumbria is broken. Seven councils, six district councils and the county councils… and that’s without the two national parks that linger on in Cumbria as well. We are over-governed, and some would say under led.

“This is a costly system; but it’s actually that the people out there are crying out for simplification. I think a one-stop-shop of issues – whether it’s getting the waste collected or mending a pothole – people want simplification in Cumbria, which inevitably is cheaper.”

Lib Dem’s Cllr Andy Connell urged councillors to “think carefully” about the proposals.

“Think carefully about this—about the role of the councillor. A councillor would not only have county councillor functions, but that of several district councillors too,” he said.

“I think there are also risks in terms of district council functions—the unglamorous ones—being side-lined in a unitary authority. I’m also somewhat concerned about the loss of checks and balances because, historically, when one authority gets fixed on some stupid decision, the other authority says, ‘no don’t do that.’ And that can sometimes be advantageous.

“I would propose – looking into this – I would say to the council be careful what you wish for.”

Lord Liddle – who has previous experience in the process of local government mergers going through the House of Commons and Lords and is a Labour councillor – said the council is facing a “very difficult financial situation.”

He explained: “I think we have to ask ourselves, is it morally right for us to be spending so much money on a top-heavy administrative, and democratic structure for Cumbria? We could save on estimates, between £15m-£25m, simply as a result of local government reorganisation.

“How will we be organised – I think we should strive for consensus. I think there is a lot to be said for a single council for the whole county – my impression is that people don’t have a clue about the difference between district and county council. They come to me all the time with issues that concern district.”

Earlier this month the new chief executive of the new unitary Dorset Council told PSE their move will be “the right decision” for the county.

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