Following publication of the White Paper ‘Strong and Prosperous Communities’, the Government has issued an invitation to county and district councils to make proposals for mergers into unitary councils, or to be pathfinders developing innovative two-tier models for counties and district to work together. The invitation makes it clear that those councils in two-tier areas that are not pathfinders will be expected to achieve the same level of improvement and efficiency gains as the new unitaries and pathfinders will be achieving.The White Paper sets out in detail the issue that the Government is seeking to address. Strong leadership and clear accountability is harder to achieve where for the same place there are two council leaders each with a legitimate democratic mandate and often having different and sometimes conflicting agendas. As an example of the difficulty, it quotes Cumbria which has seven council leaders and 62 other executive members for a population slightly smaller than unitary Sheffield which has one council leader and nine other executive members.
Many district boundaries reflect artificial communities with little significance for local people. This lack of community identity is reflected in the artificial names of some district councils. In other areas the boundary does not reflect the natural economic boundaries of a city or town, making it harder to plan for growth, and some district councils are too small to have the capacity to secure efficiency, drive change and provide strong leadership.
The White Paper makes it clear that councils in all areas that are currently two-tier need to find new governance arrangements which overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency between tiers and can meet the particular challenges faced by small districts with small budgets or tightly constrained boundaries. It calls for councils to develop new models of working, which should also involve collaboration between councils and other public bodies, if they are to achieve ambitious further efficiency improvements.
The invitation to councils makes it clear that the status quo is not an option in two-tier areas if councils are to achieve the outcomes for place shaping and service delivery that communities expect, and deliver substantial efficiency improvements. Change is imperative, whether it comes through new structures or some form of collaborative working.
Councils wishing to form a unitary structure should submit proposals by 25 January 2007.
The invitation is available at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/pub/93/InvitationtocouncilsinEngland_id1504093.pdf