Alas poor Warwick: Who'd shed tiers in council reforms?

  • 26 March 2014
  • From the section England
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Warwick Castle
Should there be a two-tier power system in Warwick?

Picture yourself in Warwick, famous for its self-proclaimed "finest medieval castle in Britain", its racecourse and its refuse collections.

Yes, refuse collections.

Questions about which local services are run by what local authorities are suddenly headline news. They are often answered with illustrations such as: "the districts collect the rubbish and the counties dispose of it".

And much else besides of course.

The upper-tier county councils deliver some high-cost, labour-intensive services such as education and social care while others, like housing and leisure services are the preserve of the lower-level district or borough authorities.

But how many of the electorate are aware of such niceties? If voters don't understand these arrangement what hope is there for genuine political accountability? And, not least, how can they make informed, value-for-money choices?

Warwick Racecourse
Most of the district council runners and riders would like to see the status-quo maintained

'Open debate'

With unprecedented pressure on local authorities' budgets, Warwickshire County Council alone need to save £92m over the next four years. Its Conservative Leader, Izzi Seccombe, says public consultations have prompted her administration to consider whether too replace the present two-tier arrangement with a single, unitary, council which would take responsibility for all the local services.

According to Ms Seccombe this would save £17m a year, cutting council tax bills by £30 a year for an average band D property, and make local democracy more comprehensible. The number of councillors in the county would be reduced from 250 to fewer than 100 and remove the potential for conflicts of interest between the two levels of local government.

Ms Seccombe says; "The intention is to start an open and inclusive debate which will have at its core the interests of our citizens, and what makes sense to them, and the long term viability of local government in Warwickshire".

Warwickshire wouldn't be the first county to go unitary.

They already have in Shropshire and Herefordshire for many of the reasons set out by Cllr Seccombe and some councillors in Gloucestershire are also talking about following suit.

Refuse
Who will be responsible for Warwick's rubbish?

Predictably, some of the strongest opposition to the idea comes from the lower-tier district councils which would be wound up.

In part this is party political: district councils have often been Labour's main powerbases in otherwise Conservative-dominated shire counties. Even in Tory Warwickshire, two of the five lower-tier districts are Labour-controlled.

Nuneaton and Bedworth's Labour leader Denis Harvey says going unitary would bring chaos: "Local government should be just that: local. Efficiency and high quality services are our main priority at the town hall. Although our name appears at the top of the council tax bill, we take only 13% of the total money you pay, and are always aware that it is your money we are spending."

The Labour council leader goes on to quote the Conservative Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles in support of maintaining the status quo.

"I hope residents will be pleased to hear, as we were, that the Secretary of State has categorically ruled out any reorganisation of councils locally, along with the chaos this would inevitably bring, and condemned any use of taxpayers' money to push this idea any further," he said.

'Strongly opposed'

His party colleague, the leader in neighbouring North Warwickshire, Mick Stanley is "strongly opposed".

And local Conservative district and borough council leaders have come out against the idea as well.

In Warwick, Andrew Mobbs is "strongly opposed". Craig Humphreys, the leader in Rugby says there is "no appetite" for it. Leaving only Stratford-on-Avon's Conservative leader Chris Saint saying he is "open to persuasion".

But if the predominantly hostile attitude of district councils puts you in mind of the old adage about turkeys and Christmas, think again. If Izzi Seccombe's Warwickshire were indeed to go unitary, the upper-tier county council she leads would itself be wound up.

Herefordshire's unitary authority was established sixteen years ago when the former Hereford and Worcester County Council was dissolved. The leader of Herefordshire's ruling Conservative group Tony Johnson will be explaining how they have managed the transition to single-tier local services in this weekend's Sunday Politics programme.

I hope you will be able to join us at the slightly later time of 11.15 on BBC One on Sunday 30th March 2014.