Report on unitary council for Hertfordshire prepared in February before asking boroughs and districts

PUBLISHED: 17:25 23 July 2020 | UPDATED: 09:35 24 July 2020

Hertfordshire County Council offices, Hertford. Picture: DANNY LOO

Hertfordshire County Council offices, Hertford. Picture: DANNY LOO

©2019 Danny Loo Photography - all rights reserved

A report looking into the advantages and disadvantages of Hertfordshire County Council becoming a unitary body was prepared in February – five months before boroughs and districts were told last week about the plans.

Transferring power from all lower-tier councils – such as Stevenage, North Herts, St Albans and Welwyn Hatfield – is estimated to cost £43,449k with £35,830k in revenue foregone in council tax, according to the PwC report.

There could also be up to over £100 million year-on-year savings if the reorganisation and transformation to a new single, unitary organisation goes ahead.

In response, St Albans District Council leader Cllr Chris White – who has joined forces with nine other lower-tier councils to oppose the move – has said: “Well, we have the PwC report on reorganising local government in Herts that HCC had hidden from us all – produced in February, we now learn.

“Biased against the current system, as you would expect: but really surprised at the poor quality – leaving aside silly mistakes.”

The report also looks at whether two unitary councils would be possible, which would effectively be splitting the south and west – Dacorum, Hertsmere, St Albans, Three Rivers and Watford – and the north and east – Broxbourne, East Hertfordshire, North Hertfordshire, Stevenage and Welwyn Hatfield – into different councils.

The advantages, according to the report, would be savings, economies of scale, developing a shared service approach across the two organisations as part of a transformation programme, and residents could benefit from a simpler service.

However, two systems would make the fire services, social care and housing more complicated and unitary-like power would create remote decision making for communities and the electorate. A two-council approach would also save an estimated £70m.

On election matters, the report demonstrated that district councils are more diverse than the county when it comes to political parties.

There are 214 Conservative councillors in lower-tier councils, with 95 for Labour and 133 for the Lib Dems, while the upper-tier county council has been Conservative-controlled since 2001 and has 50 Cons, 18 Lib Dems, nine Labs and one independent.

If a north east and south west separate unitary system was to be established then it would be more of a mixed bag between conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems.

However, centralised growth for jobs and housing has been explained as a key reason for unitary changes.

The report has said: “With a clear focus on sustainable and inclusive growth, there is an opportunity for local government to elevate its system and place leadership role and build on the foundations that already exist.

“The national political landscape as well the relationships established with key officials, combined with strong local leadership, could create the necessary conditions for positive change.”

Some centralisation through Herts Growth Board and Forward has already driven inward investment by attracting new and existing employers to commit to the area, such as the recent success of the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst being named as one of six new Life Sciences Opportunity Zones in the UK.

However, austerity – which has meant an almost 50 per cent cut in funding for local government since 2010 – has been highlighted strongly as the context in which local government needs savings.

“Despite greater pressure for increased service provision, particularly in care services, the evidence that austerity has had a profound impact on local government is clear. But transformation and change is also a priority.

Cllr David Williams, leader of HCC said during the reports announcement: “The government has made clear that the forthcoming devolution White Paper will set out the government’s intention to strengthen local institutions, including establishing more unitary councils.

“We all need to provide clear, collective leadership to Hertfordshire as a place and achieve a consensus across a broad range of residents and partners, including health, business, community and voluntary organisations and the police.

“We are committed to exploring the best way to organise ourselves to continue to meet the needs of our residents and provide the most effective support for the county’s economic recovery.”

You can read the full report online here.

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