Council leaders in Hertfordshire highlight unitary concerns to Secretary of State

The Government has signalled a wish for more unitary authorities

Friday, 28th August 2020, 3:48 pm
Updated Friday, 28th August 2020, 3:50 pm

Leaders of Hertfordshire’s 10 district and borough councils have written to the Secretary of State to outline their opposition to any plans for a single unitary council in the county.

Government has signalled a wish for more unitary authorities and more elected mayors nationally.

And earlier this month it emerged that Hertfordshire County Council had commissioned its own exploratory work to consider the formation of a single unitary council.

Hertfordshire County Council offices

But – in an unprecedented move – the leaders of all 10 district and borough councils in Hertfordshire have already united to say they would oppose any move towards a single unitary council.

And now they have written to Secretary of State Robert Jenrick MP to outline their collective position.

Currently the county is split into 10 district and boroughs, where local councils provide a range of services – such as planning, environmental health, bin collection, housing and licensing.

And alongside these district and borough councils, the county council provides services such as education, libraries, social care, highways – and even the fire service.

But under a single unitary authority all the services would be delivered by a single council.

In their letter to Mr Jenrick – dated August 6 – the leaders of the 10 district and borough councils say a single unitary authority in Hertfordshire would be too big.

They say that any reorganisation should be “carefully considered and consulted upon”.

And they outline the councils’ ongoing successes in working together under the existing system.

“There is a cross-party and cross-authority consensus amongst us that we do not believe that a unitary authority comprising 1.2million residents is a workable option,” says the letter.

“We do not feel that such a massive entity would fit in with the Government’s intended outcomes for local government serving residents, businesses and communities on the ground.”

In the letter the 10 leaders say the proposed scale of a single authority in Hertfordshire would be “almost unprecedented”.

And they say they have “strong concerns” about whether an authority of this size could “convey an identity, respond effectively to local needs, and be democratically accountable to its citizens in any meaningful sense.”

The letter also points to the collective ongoing work of the 11 existing councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership to improve economic growth, accelerate housing delivery and to generate investment.

In particular it highlights their collective role in accelerating the delivery of 100,000 additional homes by 2031, in adding £9billion of economic value to the UK economy, in creating 100,000 new jobs by 2030 and unlocking £5billion of private sector investment.

And it also points to their role in plans for Hertfordshire to become a carbon zero county before 2050.

Before requesting a meeting with Mr Jenrick, the leaders report they have commissioned their own review of future options of local government in Hertfordshire.

They say that the COVID-19 outbreak has taught ‘us’ that the “most localised solutions have often been those that have worked best”.

And they say they will seek to engage on a range of ‘viable alternatives’ to ensure that there is ‘the transparent and rigorous process our communities in Hertfordshire deserve and have confidence in’.

Speaking on behalf of all 10 district and boroughs, Cllr Linda Haysey, leader of East Herts Council, stressed the need for extensive consultation.

She said: “It is clear that any top-down reorganisation of governance in boroughs and districts would need to be consulted upon extensively throughout our local communities.

“Any decision needs to be taken in their interests but we do not believe that a single unitary of 1.2million is right for Hertfordshire or our residents, businesses and communities.

“COVID-19 has shown us that localised solutions are often the most effective, and the spirit of devolution is that democratic decisions affecting people’s lives be made where they are most effective and have the greatest impact, rather than in unwieldy and arbitrary ‘super councils’, who have little resonance with those whom they serve.

“Hertfordshire’s Growth Board has shown huge successes with boroughs and districts working together, whilst still being able to be democratically accountable to their local communities.

“Our view is, and particularly in time of a global health crisis, why try to fix something that isn’t broken, and is delivering well for our communities in Hertfordshire?”

Exploratory work commissioned by the county council has indicated that a move to a single unitary authority in Hertfordshire could save £142million a year.

Alternatively, Hertfordshire could move to a unitary system, but be split into two – or more – authorities.