The confusion over responsibilities between boroughs and the county council in Surrey could soon be resolved if government plans for reorganising local government come to fruition.
In his first Queen’
s speech in October 2019, the prime minister promised a white paper ‘to set out my Government’s ambitions for unleashing regional potential in England, and to enable decisions that affect local people to be made at a local level.’
This was reinforced in his second Queen’s speech just a few weeks later and after he was re-elected in December, when Boris Johnson promised ‘measures to ensure that every part of the United Kingdom can prosper,’ and to give ‘communities more control over how investment is spent so that they can decide what is best for them.’ This would seem to fit closely with the views of many people for whom Surrey County Council is seen as too remote and their local borough or district council, less than efficient.
The United Kingdom currently has an uneven jigsaw of different systems, but for Surrey this must spell the beginning of the end for the nearly fifty-year-old, two-tier system, the county council with eleven boroughs and districts underneath it. In some areas there are also parish and even town councils, as a third tier of local government. Powers are shared, divided and in some cases, argued over.
Few however, will argue that a multitude of councils and councillors is the most efficient or effective method of local government. Inevitably there will be opposition to change so is important that any proposals are interpreted positively, as an opportunity to build on the benefits of greater powers with improved funding for investment in housing, transport, health and social care.
Certainly the Tory chair of the Local Government Association Cllr James Jamieson, seemed to share this view when in welcoming the Queen’s Speech proposals he The eleven boroughs and districts in Surrey was quoted as saying ‘taking decisions over
how to run local services closer to where people live is key to improving them and saving money. There is clear and significant evidence that outcomes improve and the country gets better value for money when councils have the freedoms and funding to make local decisions.’
Perhaps wisely, in the light of its possible demise, council leader Tim Oliver has put on hold Surrey’s expensive plans to relocate its headquarters from Kingston to Woking.
Meanwhile, the local government minister, Simon Clarke MP is working on his white paper, which despite the Coronavirus crisis, is still promised for September and will, according to Jessica Hill writing in the Local Government Chronicle include a ‘heavy splash of local government reorganisation.’ This Mr Clarke confirmed at the recent Local Government Association conference when in his speech he said,
‘Our transformative plan will include a clear, ambitious strategy for strengthening our local institutions. With many more elected mayors and more unitary councils following in the footsteps of Dorset, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.’
No change it would appear, is not an option. Robert Jenrick, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, set the ball rolling last September when he told the Conservative Party conference that he did not believe district councils had a long-term future. This is borne out by the fact that the government has been encouraging devolution deals for the past five years. By the end of 2019, ten such agreements were in place - six of which have resulted in the formation of mayor-led combined authorities. It is expected that further such deals will, in addition to directly elected mayors, also require local government reorganisation as a prerequisite.
Just over two years ago, the influential but independent think tank ResPublica published a report on County Devolution. It argued for reform and identified ‘huge economic and public service benefits of streamlining complex local government structures into single county unitary authorities.
This does not automatically mean Surrey County Council taking over all the powers of the eleven boroughs and districts into a one tier system of local government. There are plenty of variations on the system around the country. In Cornwall for example, whilst the six district councils were abolished in 2009 when the powers were transferred to the unitary Cornwall Council, this was supplemented by 213 parish and town councils.
Of course Cornwall is not Surrey. It has an area twice that of Surrey and a population half the size. Additionally it is nearly 100 miles and a two-hour journey from the Devon border to Land’s End.
Nearer to home Baroness Scott, a recent leader of Wiltshire Council commented positively that abolishing their ‘four district councils and the county council, … and replacing them with a single county unitary was a huge decision that, with the benefit of hindsight, looks even shrewder.’
She believed Wiltshire saved ‘more than £120 million since 2010. Duplication and bureaucracy has been reduced, the property estate has been rationalised, services and staff levels have been reviewed and reduced, contracts have been renegotiated, and, working closely with 18 local communities we have devolved services, facilities and budgets closer to local residents than was ever the case under a two-tier system.’
Other councillors in Wiltshire and Cornwall have expressed contrary views explaining that their unitary authorities make decision-making more remote with council headquarters in Truro and Trowbridge.
A range of differing views can also be heard from Berkshire, which was abolished in 1997 or Dorset which went only last year; proposals for Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire being in the pipeline. Perhaps the nearest and more advanced plan to Surrey’s is that being proposed in Lancashire. H
ere government officials have indicated between two and five new unitary councils to cover populations of between 300,000 and 700,000 people. Dividing Surrey into three such areas would work easily, with populations comfortably in this range.
The Redcliffe-Maud proposals in 1969 advocated dividing Surrey into two parts west and east with the former gaining parts of Hampshire and Crawley being added to the east. These might well have gone through had Labour not been defeated in the 1970 general election and the new premier Edward Heath bowing to then heavily Conservative controlled county council pressure.
It was a later Labour government under Tony Blair which again advanced proposals for unitary authorities with the then cabinet office minister David Miliband suggesting the creation of super-councils, by abolishing either the district or the county council and replacing them with all-purpose authorities across the country. Miliband noted that the existing local government structure was complex and wasteful, creating ‘fragmented and competing leadership’. The current set up in Surrey means there are twelve Council Leaders, twelve Chief Executives, twelve civic centres, dozens of deputies and over 500 councillors. This excludes the parishes and six town councils. Bizarrely several County Councillors are also district councillors and a few are on the parish or town council as well! All told over 1000 councillors for 1.2 million people.
Mr Miliband also said district councils were expensive, spending about one third of their then, £3 billion budget on bureaucracy. He knew that to have any chance of success, changes needed grass roots support and he invited ‘local authorities to make proposals for unitary structures, based on existing district or county boundaries".
Simon Clarke is known to have several meetings with local council leaders and Surrey’s Members of Parliament. There are a number of reasons for believing the latest proposals are likely to progress. Firstly these are changes being suggested by a Conservative government for largely (but not exclusively) Conservative controlled areas, although the Conservatives technically only have majority control of five out of Surrey’s eleven boroughs and districts. So the previous opposition may be more muted. Secondly since 2010, successive blue governments at Westminster have drastically reduced the funding for local government and hence the financial pressure for change has become immense.
Initially it was believed that the minister was looking at making Surrey the unitary council similar perhaps to the Cornwall model. More recent information suggests that this has evolved to two or three councils, not east and west as suggested by Redcliffe-Maud but more north and south. In the two options plan there will be a huge Surrey Hills Council stretching from Oxted and Tandridge in the east through to Farnham in the west.
The other split would be the ‘Five Boroughs’ concept with a strap line ‘serving the people of north Surrey and south west Middlesex’. This would include Spelthorne, Runnymede, Surrey Heath, Elmbridge and Woking – all commuter towns to London with some parts much more urban than rural. Epsom and Ewell would be a rather uncomfortable fit with the Surrey Hills Council. It is doubtful that this plan would be well received by Surrey residents. One council covering a huge area from Haslemere to Horley, or Worples-don to Warlingham would not be easy to sell.
The Labour party in Surrey has long argued for a unitary structure for the county but believes this suggestion of Five Boroughs and Surrey Hills not to be the best. Instead Surrey Labour will argue for the alternative plan under consideration; three unitary councils, supporting a Middlesex and Surrey Borders Council, (four boroughs – population approx. 412,000) with Woking moved in with Guildford and Waverley to create a Surrey Hills (West) Council (pop approx. 365,000) . This would then leave an East Surrey Council comprising Epsom and Ewell, Reigate and Banstead, Mole Valley and Tandridge (pop approx. 402 000). The return of the name Middlesex (after nearly sixty years) in a Middlesex-Surrey-Borders (or Middlesex-Surrey-Thameside Council) would be popular with many residents.
As indicated earlier, this would be similar to what is being seriously considered in Lancashire and would create three councils with populations comfortably with the government’s target range 300 000 to 700 000.
However, should the government wish to be more ambitious and arguably more sensible it could go further back for inspiration. The Herbert Report in 1960 proposed establishing a Greater London Council with 52 smaller boroughs (instead of the eventual 32). This plan had Spelthorne, (then two boroughs: Sunbury and Staines) plus Esher and Weybridge, Epsom and Ewell and Caterham and Warlingham) as part of greater London. By the time the new council came in to existence, these areas had one way or another, all negotiated to be in Surrey. Spelthorne formerly Middlesex, being the only part of the county north of the river.
In the sixty years since the Herbert Report, London has crept out further, the M25 and the M3 have been built through the county and there are strong arguments for extending London’s borders. For many residents, the benefits of zone 6 travel, the Metropolitan Police and London Fire brigade coupled with higher school spending per child would be persuasive. There are no signs yet that the government is suggesting these changes. If they were looking at boundary revisions or crossing borders, there is a strong case for a Blackwater Valley Council based from Camberley to Farnham and Aldershot or a possible return to Surrey for Purley and Cosdon.
Should some areas, particularly rural villages or even towns, end up under a very large unitary there may still be a role for town and parish councils or as the minister put it at the LGA conference ‘making space for town and parish councils to be genuinely empowered’. However they might be better used as a consultative body on matters like planning and have specific powers devolved to them by the unitary authorities with ring-fenced funds. These should focus on matters that can genuinely best be done at a community level.
Whilst unitary authorities may be a requirement for a devolution deal in the future, it is likely that, to access the best deals, there would still be a requirement for a combined authority with a directly elected county mayor. So just how might a county mayor structure work in Surrey? The additional powers and government money on offer vary from one place to the next and may yet be revised in the post COVID-19 climate but typically they include control over integrated transport, adult education, strategic planning and economic development. The minimum government financing for such a deal usually extends to an additional £30m every year for 30 years.
Surrey has a number of services such as Surrey Fire and Rescue or the office of the Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner that can only work on the larger county wide geographical spans. These services could be rolled under any directly elected mayor in a combined authority made up of the new unitarities. In fact, to encourage greater efficiencies in these types of service and get real economic powers in a devolution deal, it might even be worth considering a South East England combined authority. Bringing together the presumably freshly reorganised unitary authorities from across Surrey, east and west Sussex and Kent, this would open up options for a much more strategic approach to transport and housing, both of which can legitimately be described as South East wide problems. Had such an authority been in place before COVID-19, it may be that a regional response could have saved lives and better reacted to the needs of the south east of England.
Whilst the status quo is a not an option, the minister will surely be aware that like House of Lords reform, any attempt to restructure local government be difficult and divisive. Opposition usually comes more from local politicians than residents, who want lower council tax and betters services. They find a two (or three) tier system confusing and expensive. They don’t generally mind who provides the services, just that they exist and they know to whom to complain when things go wrong!
By working with local authorities to jointly prepare proposals for unitary authorities, it may be Mr Clarke has embarked on a route more likely to succeed. The financial pressures and economies of scale involved, may be the sweetener for change.
Robert Evans and Arran Neathey with thanks to a range of MPs, officers, civil servants and others.
Robert Evans has been Surrey county councillor for Stanwell and Stanwell Moor since 2013. He was a London MEP from 1994-2009
Arran Neathey has been Labour leader on Runnymede Borough Council and councillor for Egham Hythe since 2019. He is vice chair of the south east Coop Party.