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Another county looking for savings in new unitary council proposal

Lincolnshire is the latest of England’s county councils to propose a new unitary authority as a way to spur savings in the region.

Its leaders plan to hold a public referendum on the proposal, which would involve scrapping the county’s eight district and county councils to make a unitary system of governance. 

The county has said that the new system could save up to £150m in the first five years, but district councils are unconvinced by the proposal, arguing that Lincolnshire is acting like a “rogue” council.

Yet leader of Lincolnshire County Council, Cllr Martin Hill, said: “The current system of councils in Lincolnshire is one we can no longer afford. A unitary model has successfully been adopted in many areas of the country and has proved to be simpler, better for services, more local and most importantly – costs less to run.

“I believe the current system is complicated, wasteful and no longer financially sustainable. Without change, important local services are already being reduced and even cut entirely.”

Lincolnshire county councillors are set to meet to discuss the proposals on 24 February before voting on whether a referendum should go ahead.

If the proposal is approved, the referendum will be held on 4 May on the same day as the local government elections. However, the decision to approve the creation of the unitary authority would ultimately lie with the DCLG.

Rival councils have criticised the proposal, saying that it would not be viable and has been forced by the county’s dire financial situation.

“This is the county acting like a rogue council I’m afraid to say, because I think it’s in a financial crisis,” said City of Lincoln Council leader, Cllr Ric Metcalfe.

Fellow district council leader Cllr Craig Leyland, who heads East Lindsey, added that a single unitary council for Lincolnshire is “not a viable proposal given the size and geography of the area”.

But Cllr Hill defended the proposals, responding that all county councils need funding to support adult social care and the reorganisation would save money without touching frontline services.

“I wouldn’t say that we were a rogue council – we’re better placed than many councils in the country,” he said. “It would be irresponsible of us to not consider these changes.”

The news comes just a few months after the region’s devolution deal was said to be at risk of being scrapped altogether when Lincolnshire’s county council members voted against it. The package would have seen 10 Lincolnshire councils form a Greater Lincolnshire Combined Authority, complete with an elected mayor, and receive an extra £15m a year from government over the next 30 years.

Lincolnshire is also not the first county council to start the New Year by proposing radical changes to their governance. Last week, Oxfordshire County Council began consulting on a similar proposal, saying it would save £100m over the next five years. However, its lower-tier councils quickly criticised the idea, arguing that it would be “a disaster” for Oxfordshire.

(Image c. Lee Haywood)

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