By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Scrapping Kent’s 13 smaller councils and merging them into a larger unitary authority could generate major savings, a report says.
The County Councils Network (CCN) dossier says a single unitary authority in each of the 25 remaining two-tier areas – like Kent – could save around £3billion over the next five years in a “compelling” financial case for councils.
The publication of the 73-page CCN report comes ahead of a Government white paper which is expected to outline major reforms to local government.
Swale Borough Council Leader Roger Truelove (Lab), who warned about the “encroachment” to local democracy, said he would resist the idea, adding: “Kent, in my view, is too big to be a unitary authority on its own.”
However, Cllr David Williams, chairman of the CCN, said: “Unitary counties won’t lead to a democratic deficit. Rather, as evidenced by authorities that have already made this journey, they have the potential to bring services closer to residents.”
The proposal put forward by CCN would see around 213 smaller councils in England scrapped and replaced with 25 new and larger local authorities. It is hoped this would “safeguard” council services in the wake of the pandemic.
In Kent, this would likely mean the 12 district councils and single unitary authority could merge with Kent County Council (KCC) as the largest authority in the area which covers around 1.5 million people.
Medway Cllr Alan Jarrett (Con), leader of the only unitary authority in Kent which was set up in 1998, said he would not support the idea of “major reform” to the way local government is run in Kent.
At a virtual cabinet meeting on Tuesday, he added: “Without an effective local government and proactive sector we would not be in an improving position as a country that we are now.”
The CCN says it does not favour creating multiple unitaries for each area because that would mean “splitting up” children’s social services and adult social care departments which are currently overseen by county councils.
It would also mean that different councils would be “competing” over scarce care providers at a time when demand for social care will likely rise post-coronavirus, the CCN adds.
Plans for an East Kent “super council” involving four authorities including Dover, Folkestone, Thanet and Canterbury were mooted in 2017 but never progressed.
Medway Council opposition leader Vince Maple (Lab) said he could see a North Kent unitary authority working logistically.
Bournemouth merged from four councils into one in April 2019, covering an area of around 450,000 people.
The tight-lipped Whitehall administration has kept its cards close to its chest ahead of the white paper outlining its proposal.
A spokesman for the department of Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “We’re committed to levelling up all areas of the country and empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster.
“We’ll set out our detailed plans in the White Paper that will be published this autumn.”
A Thanet council spokesperson said: “We are anticipating the White Paper with interest. The council is open to exploring what a reorganisation of local government could look like – particularly where that safeguards and improves services to the public and enables the most effective use of resources, which is important in light of the impact of COVID 19.”