Hertfordshire councillors updated on central government devolution agenda

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The leader of Hertfordshire County Council spoke at a meeting of the council's cabinet

Speculation that national plans to ‘transform’ local government may be delayed has been highlighted by Hertfordshire County Council leader cllr David Williams.

Speaking at a meeting of the county council’s cabinet, cllr Williams pointed to ‘speculation’ that the white paper may not be published, as expected, in the autumn.

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And – after acknowledging its publication at this point may be “challenging” – he stressed that if the government wanted institutions to change before 2024, there was a need to publish the white paper as soon as possible.

Hertfordshire County Council officesHertfordshire County Council offices
Hertfordshire County Council offices

“I have to say there is some speculation that it may not be possible to publish the white paper in the autumn,” said cllr Williams.

“And inevitably the status of the pandemic and the evidence that we are seeing now of a second spike means that it may be considered challenging for the government to publish this at this time.”

Cllr Williams made the comments as the cabinet considered an ‘update on central government’s devolution agenda’ on Monday , September 21.

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And he pointed to the need to publish the white paper as soon as possible.

He said: “… I think we all need to recognise, and government needs to recognise, is that if it wants new institutions in place as we go through 2022/23/24 then it really is important that the devolution white paper is issued as soon as possible.”

But following the meeting the government’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told that Local Democracy Reporting Service that the white paper WILL be published this autumn.

Commenting on the contents and timing of the planned white paper, a spokesperson for the MHCLG said: “We want to decentralise giving more power to local communities, providing opportunities for them to enjoy devolution.

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“There will be no blanket abolishment of district councils and no top-down restructuring of local government.

“The devolution White Paper, which will be published this Autumn, will set out our detailed plans and we continue to work closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

It’s in anticipation of the white paper that Hertfordshire County Council commissioned exploratory work to consider the creation of a single unitary authority in the county.

And that work has suggested that replacing the existing county council and the 10 district and borough councils with a single unitary council could save up to £142m a year.

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Leaders of the 10 district and borough councils have already vowed to oppose plans for a single unitary authority – suggesting it would be too big and too remote.

But Cllr Williams has already said that he supports the move towards unitary authorities “very strongly”.

And at Monday’s meeting, executive member for growth, infrastructure, planning and the economy cllr Derrick Ashley said he hoped the white paper would bring “radical proposals”.

He said unitary councils were working “very satisfactorily” in large parts of the country, metropolitan and rural. And he said the public often didn’t understand how the existing two-tier structure works.

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“In Hertfordshire alone it’s estimated that if we went to a unitary structure we could save up to £100m,” he said.

“And I do think this is a time we are under a lot of pressure financially – we should be doing our utmost to deliver efficient local government for the people of Hertfordshire.

“So I am hoping that we will see something that comes forward that delivers a simpler structure that people can identify with and indeed saves huge amounts of public money.”

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.

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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.

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