Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset
On Friday, I issued invitations under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to principal councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and Somerset, including associated existing unitary councils, to submit proposals for moving to unitary local government in those areas. This is the first step in the statutory process under the 2007 Act for establishing unitary councils in response to locally led proposals from one or more existing councils in the area concerned.
Councils in these areas have requested such invitations and have been developing ideas about restructuring local government in their areas for some time. It is right that they should now have the opportunity to take their local discussions to a conclusion, and if they wish, make proposals for unitary reform. Under the statute such locally led proposals, subject to consultation and parliamentary approval, can be implemented if I consider this appropriate.
There is thus no question of any top-down imposition of Government solutions. We are clear that any reform of an area’s local government, where there is strong local support for the principle of a unitary structure, is most effectively achieved through locally-led proposals put forward by those who best know the area.
It is now for the councils in each of the three areas to make, if they wish, their unitary proposals, either individually or jointly with other councils in the area. The invitations provide that if a council is responding it must submit by 9 November 2020 at least an outline proposal, and if a full proposal has not been submitted by then, the full proposal must be submitted as soon as practical thereafter and by no later than 9 December 2020.
I will carefully consider any proposals I receive, assessing them on the basis of the long-standing criteria for establishing unitary councils, namely that if a unitary proposal is to be implemented it must be likely to improve local government in the area, command a good deal of local support overall across the area, and lead to unitary councils covering a credible geography.
While traditionally various population ranges for unitary councils, such as 300,000 to 600,000 populations, have been referred to, regard must be had to the particular circumstances of a proposed unitary council; including issues of local identity, local geography, delivery of public services and economies of scale when assessing population size.
I recognise that when making proposals councils may request that the May 2021 local elections in the area are postponed. Such postponement of local elections where unitarisation is under consideration is precedented, and I will carefully consider any such request.
With these invitations councils in the three areas now have an opportunity to move forward with reforms which can open the way to significant benefits for local people and businesses, delivering service improvements, facilitating economic growth, and contributing to the levelling up of opportunity and prosperity across the country.
Broader policy on local government reorganisation
The Government are also reaffirming their policy position on the issue of local government reorganisation; this broadly reflects that outlined in the written ministerial statement made by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) in July 2019.
Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can be an appropriate means of improving local service delivery, saving taxpayers’ money and improving local accountability. However, restructuring is only one of the different ways that councils can streamline and make savings. Joint working with other councils and partners can take a variety of forms ranging from adopting joint plans, setting up joint committees, sharing back-office services or special purpose vehicles to promote regeneration. Such joint working may extend across county boundaries. Indeed, councils’ general power of competence under the Localism Act 2011 makes it easier for councils to get on with sharing services.
The Government will not impose top-down restructuring of local government and will continue to follow a locally-led approach for unitarisation where councils can develop proposals which have strong local support. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010, when top-down restructuring was stopped through the Local Government Act 2010.
When considering reform, those in an area will know what is best—the very essence of localism to which the Government remain committed. However, the pandemic has rightly necessitated resources across Whitehall and in local government being reallocated to tackling covid-19 and on economic recovery, and this must be Whitehall’s and town halls’ No. 1 priority at present.