FEATURE: Sir Peter Brown on unitary authorities

Cllr Sir Peter Brown.

Cllr Sir Peter Brown. - Credit: Archant

It doesn’t seem to matter where you look these days in terms of service provision. Change appears to be the order of the day. Those who work in the NHS are either vociferously against changes in delivery or recognise that there are news ways of working which we have to embrace.

It’s the same in education. For years successive governments have changed the way in which our offspring are educated, much to the chagrin of teachers and education professionals alike.

It is now the turn of the emergency services. Changes in the way we operate has to come not only to save vital resources but also to take into account the successes that particularly the fire service, have achieved by reducing the number of incidents and therefore the call outs.

I digress but this is the way of the real world these days. Mainly due to technology, change has to be embraced at all levels of local government.

Earlier this month, Cambridgeshire county councillors discussed ways in which we could deliver local government services not only cheaper, but more effectively. There is a genuine widespread agreement that the current way needs to change. So what are the options? Cambridgeshire currently operate a three tier system of local government – services delivered by the county council, five district councils and a large number of parish and town councils.

In Huntingdonshire, for example, HDC collects our waste and rubbish whilst the county council disposes of it.

Residents tell me that in most cases you’re not too concerned as to where your services come from. All you want, quite rightly, are the best possible services, delivered at value for money.

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To be fair, there is an ongoing drive to cut out wasteful and unnecessary expenditure. Councils are working more closely to provide services. Huntingdonshire and South Cambridgeshire are collaborating on a number of projects which will cut red tape and drive out inefficiencies.

This is good, but does it go far enough? Would we not be better adopting a different model, one tier of local government, known as unitary? A unitary authority for Huntingdonshire has been considered in the past but rejected by Government, principally because it was felt that the district was not large enough to sustain and deliver major services. I believe there is now a strong case to revisit this.

Here I am discussing the principle of how we operate, not how many unitary authorities we need. For example, I do not believe that one authority for the whole of the county would be the model that I would want to adopt. The interests and needs of Cambridge are hugely different to those of Huntingdonshire or Fenland.

I firmly believe that moving to a unitary system would:

– Save councils and you a great deal of valuable financial and human resources

– It would improve the delivery of our services in a more seamless manner, and, most importantly,

– Provide Cambridgeshire residents with a local government system that is more understandable and simpler to interact with

None of these changes can take place overnight. We need to consulate with our partners and the public to find a consensus but that, I think, is more achievable than it was before. In the meantime there is still work to be done on making savings and efficiencies.

Steve Criswell, a county and district councillor representing Somersham, is leading the localism agenda at the county and is looking at identifying and investigating possible alternative future governance arrangements.

Whether we move to unitary status in the future is certainly high on the agenda. Other options can be explored but the status quo cannot be sustained for much longer.

At the moment, I believe there are around 1,400 council seats on the various local authorities in Cambridgeshire. Do we really need to elect 1,400 people to represent us?

To me it is not a question of “getting rid of districts, the county or parish councils”. It’s simply a question of making local government in Cambridgeshire work better for us all.

Times are changing. We need to think differently, operate differently and, above all, understand that what worked for us 20 or so years ago, will not necessarily do so now. Don’t be afraid of change. Let’s embrace it.