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Council could drop unitary status as mayor insists ‘there is no money left’

Torbay Council’s chief executive is reviewing the possibility of abandoning the authority’s unitary status and reverting to a district council after the mayor promised he was not crying wolf when saying that there was simply no money left.

At a board meeting, during which members reviewed the 2017-18 budget, the Conservative-controlled authority backed mayor Gordon Oliver’s proposal to review the future of the council, which could include becoming a district council, when he put the unexpected plan to a vote.

The move, however, took some by surprise, with Liberal Democrat councillors refusing to back the proposal which had not been previously discussed. The party’s leader, Cllr Steve Darling, told Devon Live that the last-minute revelation was “madness” and “not the way to run a council.”

But Oliver argued that the decision might be the only route left for the cash-strapped council if it is to save key services. If passed, his plan would mean Torbay would join Devon County Council for the first time since parting ways 20 years ago.

“We cannot survive as we are beyond this next financial year. There is no money,” the mayor told Devon Live. “I am not crying wolf. I never cry wolf. We are too small to be a unitary authority and continue to fund these services.”

From 2020 onwards, the council will have to make up to £12m worth of cuts to stay afloat. Its budget monitoring for 2017-18 already indicated choppy waters ahead as the authority reported an overspend of almost £2m, primarily as a result of pressures on children’s social care.

“The government is not putting any money in, and we need to plan for that,” continued the mayor. “Whoever wins the election in May 2019, this has to be an all-party solution. The lack of money will drive economies of scale. Local authorities will have to work in partnership; some of them are just too small as they are.

“There are 10 chief executives in Devon and 10 financial officers. For Torbay, going back to being a district council is the only practical way to save services to children and the elderly.”

No decision has yet been made on the mayor’s proposal, with Torbay’s chief executive Steve Parrock currently reviewing all options for local government reorganisation. But one Conservative Torbay MP, Kevin Foster, told the local paper that while he did not agree with a return to the former two-tier structure, he did think Dorset’s recent decision to become two unitary authorities could prompt a similar debate in Devon.

The news comes as the County Councils Network issued a statement calling on the government to urgently inject more money into local government ahead of next year’s Spending Review, with several council leaders fearing an inability to balance the books in the coming years despite their legal duty to do so. Many are expecting to dip into their cash reserves, much like the once-bankrupt Northamptonshire has done.

Top image: c. Moorefam


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