Inter-council bickering hampers move to unitary status

14 Dec 06
The drive towards unitary status for regions with two-tier authorities is being hindered by turf wars between competing councils.

15 December 2006

The drive towards unitary status for regions with two-tier authorities is being scuppered by turf wars between competing councils.

Local government minister Phil Woolas has told Public Finance that some bids for unitary status are not being backed by sufficient financial information on which to justify a radical reorganisation.

Woolas said he was pleasantly surprised by the 'bigger than expected response' to a three-month consultation on allowing two-tier regions to become unitaries, an attempt to iron out local government inefficiencies and make savings.

But problems are arising from the refusal of some counties to provide city councils with sufficient information on the implications of a potential breakaway.

'There is major pressure on us to be decisive and allow more unitaries…but until you look at the financial criteria you can't tell if [an application] is credible,' Woolas said. 'I am aware of at least one county-district area where they are not co-operating on sharing financial information even between themselves.'

He declined to name the the area, but PF understands that it is a spat between Liberal Democrat-led Oxford City Council and the Conservative-led Oxfordshire County Council. The city claims it has been told it must seek the details it requires under the Freedom of Information Act.

The county denies this: a spokesman told PF it is working on the request – and has made its own application to the city.

Department for Communities and Local Government officials also acknowledged that there is also 'deep suspicion' that some areas may have withheld information on purpose because they cannot meet Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly's demand that the switch to unitary status must not be funded by increasing council tax.

Woolas acknowledged that party-politics is distorting the process – and pointed the finger of blame towards Conservative Party leader David Cameron. 'I find it bewildering that Cameron has ordered his councillors not to co-operate…because, to a large extent, it is Conservative areas that have asked us to take decisions on unitary status,' he said.

'Broadly, there is a lot of support for our unitary proposals across all parties within the Local Government Association. So if opposition parties in the Commons go against the grain of these proposals, they will encounter internal pressures at local level.'

Despite the wider-than-anticipated interest in reorganisation, Woolas said that he and Kelly have not yet revised their plan to grant unitary status to around eight councils.

That is likely to leave some disappointed. City or borough councils planning bids include Norwich, Exeter, Ipswich, Oxford and Preston. Counties considering bids include Northamptonshire, Cornwall, Northumberland and Shropshire.

Woolas this week published the Local government and public involvement in health bill, heralding a 'radical devolution of powers to town halls'. These include new powers to scrutinise local service delivery, extended powers for council leaders and ward councillors, firm four-year election periods and influence over public consultation in the health sector.

LGA chair Sandy Bruce Lockhart urged central government departments to 'buy into' the reforms. 'Unless departments like the Department of Health, Environment Home Office, Education and the Treasury are committed to turning the ambitions of the bill into reality, then a number of these proposals may not be fully realised,' he warned.


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