Government urged not to merge English district councils

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Merging some district and county councils in England risks “alienating” communities, the District Councils Network has warned.

It is urging ministers not to implement proposals from the County Councils Network to scrap 213 smaller councils and replace them with 25 larger bodies.

The county councils say their plan could save almost £3bn over five years.

But the district councils say creating “enormous all-purpose authorities” would “dilute the voice of residents”.

The government is planning a reorganisation of local government in England, with more directly-elected mayors, more unitary authorities and stronger town and parish councils, which it says will devolve power to local people.

At the moment, outside the main metropolitan areas, English local authorities operate in a two-tier system, with smaller district councils working under larger county councils.

‘Computer says no’

County councils’ responsibilities include education, social services and waste disposal, while district councils are responsible for rubbish collection, housing and planning.

Metropolitan councils, including all of London’s boroughs, operate as unitary – or single-tier – bodies, responsible for providing all local services. The County Councils Network’s plan would see this model expanded across England.

They argue that creating new “county unitary councils” would reduce complexity and give communities a single unified voice.

But the district councils say the plan would create the largest local authorities in Europe, “122 times larger than the average council in Germany, 14 times larger than Denmark, and five times large than the current average for all councils in England, which is already the most centralised country in Europe”.

On average, the new-style councils would be 4.5 times less representative of local communities than existing councils, leading to the further centralisation of power, the District Councils Network, which represents 188 councils, says in a report.

It warns the proposed unitary authorities would “not only dilute the voice of the resident but lose the distinctive character and needs of our market towns, villages, new towns and coastal communities in a hideous and remote ‘computer says no’ bureaucracy”.

But the County Councils Network says the international comparisons ignore the difference in what councils do in those countries, and argues that county councils are “far from remote; they are already responsible for 90% of service expenditure, providing hyper-local services within people’s homes such as domiciliary care.”

‘Absolute folly’

The network says councils should be focused on the recovery from the coronavirus crisis and lockdown, “rather than getting bogged down rearranging deckchairs in local government”.

“With limited resources in local government, we face a stark choice between recovery or reorganisation. District councils believe our absolute focus should be on recovery,” it added.

John Fuller, the Conservative leader of South Norfolk District Council, and chairman of the District Councils’ Network, said: “Whether you are talking about supporting shielded residents, housing rough sleepers, getting business grants to where they are needed as well as providing essential services to our communities, districts have delivered comprehensively and at speed, because we know our residents and businesses.”

“Any proposals to abolish districts and transfer services into new enormous councils would be absolute folly and uproot local government from local communities,” he added.

Responding to the report, the County Councils Network said: “Today’s report offers no new independent analysis, and it fails to consider the risks and costs associated with splitting up county council services if a population limit is enacted.

“Any authority wishing to put forward a credible business case for unitary reform needs to engage in these issues, not dismiss detailed analysis as simply numbers on spreadsheets.”

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