Currently, most public services, with the exception of the fire, police and NHS, are provided by councils. Three types of councils exist.
Parish and town councils have the smallest budget often only a few thousand pounds and look after cemeteries, bus shelters and very local public spaces.
District councils and Cambridge City council have larger budgets typically in the region of £10m to £50m. They cover larger geographic areas than parish councils but less than the county. We have East Cambs DC, Hunts DC, South Cambs DC, Fenland DC and Cambridge City council. They have a range of responsibilities of which planning and waste collection are the two most obvious.
The County council is by far the largest council with a non schools budget of around £450m. If you add the schools money to this then it rises to over a billion pounds. They provide children’s services, adult social care, highways, waste disposal and so on.
Each type of council has its own councillors who in theory provide strategic direction, exercise some element of command and control and provide political accountability. They also provide a way for local peoples views to be heard and considered. Councillors do not always agree with each other, within each council, and sometimes councils of different types don’t agree. Often this is to do with differences of personality or political persuasion.
A unitary authority merges the functions of the county council and the district or city councils. We would end up with just one “council” as well as all the parish and town councils. In theory this should save money as only one chief exec is required rather than the current six. In addition only one planning department would be required rather than six, only one IT dept, one legal dept, one HR dept, one comms dept, one democratic services dept and so on. It also means that those who use the services only have one council to contact rather than the current six.
So, if it is that great an idea why had it not happened yet? Well, it needs the good will of all the district and county councillors to agree that it should happen. This is always difficult to achieve as many of the councillors would lose their seats as the number of councillors required would greatly reduce from 250ish down to 70ish. More savings but turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
The decision to change to a unitary authority is disruptive and painful as Peterborough City council found out a few years ago. But having gone through the process Peterborough is now much better able to manage its services except that is not really a big enough unitary authority. It lacks critical mass. Any unitary authority, centered around Cambridge, would need to be much bigger than just Cambridge to survive.
Until recently I have defended the status quo on the basis that moving to a unitary authority would be too disruptive at a time when the county was attempting to be dynamic and really make a difference to the economy.
The impending change at the county council, moving to the committee system, will at a stroke turn the county council from a dynamic, fast thinking and progressive council based on the strong leader model into a committee bound, slow moving, risk adverse monstrosity.
A move to a unitary authority now, would save lots of money, provide a better service to the public and is no longer a risk to a dynamic council because that had been trashed anyway with the move to a committee system. I believe It’s time to move to a unitary authority.
What would it look like. Well, a unitary authority needs to have all the services of the county council with planning and waste collection bolted on. It needs to be geographically, economically and politically of sufficient size to be effective. We know that Peterborough City council is not big enough. Ideally one unitary for the whole of the county, including Peterborough would make sense. This is unlikely to happen given the complex political issues in Peterborough.
I would suggest that Cambridge City council together with South Cambs DC, East Cambs and most of Hunts DC would be about right. The north of Hunts DC, Sawtry etc could go to Peterborough as could most of Fenland. This would make two equally sized unitary authorities.
It seems the time is right but don’t underestimate the political difficulties in moving forward on this. Add to that officers in all the depts from chief execs down are likely to go into protectionist mode for their jobs and you can see the problem.
Interestingly, given the scale of savings required, in all the councils, I don’t think their is a choice, it needs to be done, if not today then very soon.