Questions raised over whether HDC could become a unitary authority
12:00 04 January 2014
Huntingdonshire District Council could become a unitary authority in the future, according to its executive leader Councillor Jason Ablewhite.
As the council faces making £6million of cuts by 2017/18 and stretching existing resources, Cllr Ablewhite believes one possibility of saving money would be to ditch the current local authority system in Huntingdonshire and replace it with one authority.
Gone would be Cambridgeshire County Council’s control and Huntingdonshire would operate in a similar way to Peterborough City Council.
It would have responsibility for social services, trading standards, transport and education as well as housing, refuse collection, street cleaning, economic development, environmental health and leisure facilities, which currently fall under the district council’s remit.
Cllr Ablewhite told The Hunts Post: “At the moment it’s not one that we are investigating but it’s something that could happen in the future.
“We are not talking about something that will happen overnight. I can see Huntingdonshire and perhaps one other council becoming unitary.
“Back in the 90s, there was a move to forming unitary authorities in areas with large populations, but with Huntingdon’s population growth in the next 10-15 years, there is a possibility of it happening here.”
Becoming a unitary authority would allow key priorities in Huntingdonshire to be addressed, such as education and transport, Cllr Ablewhite said.
“What we could do is focus the money where it needs to be focused.
“What we have currently is a county-wide focus, which sometimes can be too widely spread.
“It means we could focus on Huntingdonshire’s priorities.”
In Lord Heseltine’s review No Stone Unturned: In pursuit of Growth, he states: “Not only have we disempowered local government by centralising power and funding, but the English system of local government remains overly complex and inefficient.”
He concludes the system “is not suited to the demands of the 21st century”.
Cllr Ablewhite said: “Michael Heseltine, in his review, says there’s no place for district councils in the future.
“There is a lot of overlapping and people can sometimes be confused about which council to contact. A unitary authority would end that.”
It is not the first time local reform has been mooted.
In February 2011, HDC, Fenland District Council and East Cambridgeshire District Council were in discussion about merging to create the largest district council in England, but were not looking to turn into a unitary authority.
Later that year, then leader of CCC Nick Clarke suggested it was time for a county wide unitary authority.
He said that it would save money as it would only need one chief executive, one planning department as well as one department for IT, legal and other services.
Mr Clarke, who lost his seat on the council in last year’s election, said getting councillors’ support for such a scheme could be the biggest obstacle.
The time for Huntingdonshire to go it alone may not be now, but Cllr Ablewhite expects the change to occur at some point in the near future.
“It’s not going to be long until it happens.
“There is a General Election in 2015 and all the parties have the information on local government, even the Shadow Cabinet has the information, so there will be a really serious discussion on how local government will look in the future.”