Report says nationwide move to unitaries could save £2.9bn in five years

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A REPORT commissioned by the County Council Network suggests that replacing two-tier authorities – like Hertfordshire – with ‘unitary’ authorities could save almost £3bn over five years.

Hertfordshire is one of 25 areas nationwide that operate a two-tier council system, where some services are delivered by a county council and others by smaller district or borough councils.

But new research – compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers and commissioned by the County Council Network – suggests that £2.94bn could be saved over five years, if those 25 two-tier areas become single unitary authorities.

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In addition to the financial benefits, the report says the change would reduce complexity, maximise the benefits of strategic economic growth and housing policy and give communities a single unified voice.

Dacorum Borough Council officesDacorum Borough Council offices
Dacorum Borough Council offices

Earlier research commissioned by Hertfordshire County Council has already suggested that a move to a single unitary authority model in the county could save up to £142m a year.

And the latest national report has been welcomed by Hertfordshire County Council leader Cllr David Williams, who is chair of the County Council Network and has already advocated a move to a single unitary authority in Hertfordshire.

Highlighting the ‘compelling financial case’ in the report, Cllr Williams said: “The consequences of Coronavirus for local government finances, and the need to work quickly to support the economic recovery, means more councils want to look again at how local government is structured in their area.

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“This government has already signalled that it wants to see many more unitary councils created and it is important we get it right for our residents – we do not want to look back on this period as a missed opportunity.

“The findings from PwC show there is a compelling financial case for the creation of more unitary counties where councils seek reorganisation.

“They will provide significant savings to support front-line services and the stability needed to safeguard care services as we continue to mitigate the impact of Coronavirus.

“Crucially, it will create councils of the necessary size to support local economies to recover from the pandemic and drive forward the devolution and levelling up agendas.”

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In Hertfordshire the leaders of the 10 district and borough councils have already vowed to oppose any move towards a single unitary authority – amid fears it would be too big.

And there has been speculation that the size of any unitary authority may be capped by the government.

As part of the study, PwC considered models for each of the areas with two unitary authorities, three unitary authorities and two unitary authorities with the addition of a children’s trust – as well as a single unitary model.

But they found that nationwide a move to two unitary authorities in each area would reduce the financial benefit by two-thirds, to £1bn over five years.

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And it said splitting areas into three unitary authorities would cost £340m more over the same period.

In response to the PwC report, Cllr Williams says that an arbitrary population threshold limiting the size of any new council would cap ambition and create significant risks in delivering care services.

And he said: “This evidence shows it would mean a worse deal for local taxpayers, create confusion, costs, and complexity, and potentially deliver a postcode lottery for local services and the economic recovery.”

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