Unitary council in Hertfordshire would be ‘wrong plan, at wrong time’, says councillor

Leader of the county council has already suggested that a single unitary authority could improve services
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The creation of a single unitary council for Hertfordshire would be ‘the wrong plan, at the wrong time’, a leading Labour councillor has warned.

Hertfordshire County Council has already commissioned work to look at the impact local government reform could have on the county – in advance of the government’s devolution white paper.

And that work has suggested that a move to a single unitary authority could save Hertfordshire up to £142million a year.

Hertfordshire County Council officesHertfordshire County Council offices
Hertfordshire County Council offices

Leader of the county council Cllr David Williams has already suggested that a single unitary authority could improve services and provide better value for money – as well as being a stepping stone to further devolution of powers.

But at a meeting of the full county council on Tuesday, October 20, Labour Cllr Sharon Taylor – who is also leader of Stevenage Borough Council – urged councillors to oppose the idea.

She tabled a motion to the council – which was ultimately voted down – that highlighted the potential size of a single unitary in the county, which would be the largest council in the country.

She suggested – in the motion – that the creation of a single unitary authority would impact on democratic decision-making and on services – and that, mid-pandemic, the focus should be on recovery rather than reorganisation.

The motion suggested estimates of savings had not taken into account the cost of creating the necessary parish and town councils across the 51 per cent of the county that do not have them.

It called on the council to listen to ‘the voice of the people of the county’ and to write to the Secretary of State to ask that the white paper is delayed.

And – following publication of that white paper – it called for further work to explore all alternative local government options.

During the debate, Cllr Taylor highlighted the results of a 2000-strong survey – commissioned by the leaders of the 10 district and borough councils – in which 80 per cent said a unitary approach was the wrong approach at the wrong time. Read full story.

And she said: “The mega council that Hertfordshire wanted to create would be the biggest in Europe – bigger than Birmingham or Manchester, larger than some countries that have their own parliament, as well as local government.

“True devolution ensures that decisions are taken closest to the level of those that are impacted on by those decisions.

“We may not have found the perfect answer to that – but whatever the question is mega councils are not the answer.”

And Cllr Taylor – who says she is not against unitary councils in principle – said: “. . . leave our councils alone – this is the wrong plan at the wrong time.”

In response, council leader Cllr David Williams suggested a single unitary model would create a ‘single united voice’, save on the costs associated with a two tier system and reduce complexity.

And he said it would join up services such as housing and social care, planning and infrastructure.

He suggested that government reforms may be linked to devolution and economic recovery and that councillors should be unwilling to see Hertfordshire disadvantaged by not being part of those opportunities.

But despite government plans to publish the white paper in the autumn, Cllr Williams said he did not now expect it to be published this year.

He stressed there was now no work on local government reform being progressed by the county council.

And he said the focus was on moving Hertfordshire Growth Board forward and on the pandemic’s second spike.

During the debate leader of the Liberal Democrat group Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst made reference to the £119,000 that has been spent by the county council on exploratory work, by staff and independent consultants.

And he said he had been “shocked” that a county council officer – or officers- had been taken away from regular duties for part of this work during the council’s response to the pandemic.

The motion – seconded by Liberal Democrat Cllr Chris White, who is also leader of St Albans City and District Council – was opposed by a majority of the council, with 26 voting for, 41 against and two abstentions.