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Surrey County Hall LR

Surrey County Council's Proposal for a Surrey Unitary Authority  

Conservative-led Surrey County Council (SCC) is proposing to abolish the county's eleven Borough Councils, merging their responsibilities with those of the County Council into a Unitary Authority. This is in response to a Government White Paper (due to be published later this year) which will promote this structure for local government.

The main driver for this appears to be economic. The state of many Councils' finances are such that they cannot meet all their service requirements, leading to cutbacks - as Surrey has experienced, now exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Forming a single county-wide authority will most likely provide some economies of scale, which could lead to better funding of services. But the question is - to what extent, and at what cost to local democracy?

It should be pointed out that, despite the massive change in local government this proposal would lead to, there are no plans for a referendum or consultation with residents. It would be imposed from above. The RA Executive considers this, in itself, to be unacceptable, regardless of the details of the proposal.

What support does the SCC proposal offer for a Unitary Authority?

The Council commissioned PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy to examine different models, looking at one, two and three Unitary Authority cases for Surrey. Unsurprisingly, they found that a single authority provides the greatest economic benefit, and so this is the model being promoted. The net benefit after five years is estimated to be £322-£359 million (5.5%-6.2% based on 2019-20 budgets). However, such estimates involve a lot of assumptions, and like corporate mergers and restructuring, are unlikely to be fully attained in practice. Headline figures for future economic benefit should be treated with a huge pinch of salt, particularly if the steps to achieve this benefit are drastic.

SCC postulate further benefits of a single authority: Clarity of services for residents and maintaining their integrity; Stronger voice in negotiations with government; Greater resilience to absorb financial shocks and pressures. However, given that SCC's budget is far larger than any Borough Council, their performance in the last two of these points does not give encouragement - the Audit Commission has severely criticised their poor financial management.

SCC also offer a long list of wider benefits for residents - things like: Focusing money on the services residents care about; Tackling inequalities; Speeding up service transformation; A greener future for Surrey. All are highly aspirational, with little evidence that they can be delivered, especially considering the criticism SCC has received for its poor performance in areas such as Fire & Rescue Service, Special Education Needs, Children's Services and Youth Offending Services.

What would be the effect on local democracy?

A single Unitary Authority in Surrey, representing 1.2 million people, would be three times the recommended size, and more than twice the size of the current largest Unitary Authority (Cornwall). This would put it well beyond the point at which economies of scale are outweighed by organisational insensitivity at a local level. Vast size may make strategic planning easier in some areas, but at the cost of effective local representation.

But SCC claim that local democracy would be strengthened with the introduction of 25-30 Community Networks to provide local knowledge for the Council and bring residents closer to their Councillors. Really?? In practice, these community organisations, having no powers, would act only as a talking shop, competing for the attention of a Councillor struggling to cope with their huge electorate. Compare that with our Borough Councillors who know their wards in detail and have the powers to effect beneficial changes. And in one area especially - planning, our local Councillors' knowledge and oversight is invaluable. Would a distant Unitary Councillor have the same knowledge or interest in dealing with local planning matters to the same standard? There is no question - a Unitary Authority would seriously erode our local democracy.

What can you do if you're opposed to a Unitary Authority for Surrey?

An organisation has been established to focus opposition to this proposal - Residents Against Surrey Single Unitary (#RASSU - https://rassu.org.uk/). They have set up a petition (http://petitions.surreycc.gov.uk/unitary/) on the SCC website. Other petitions have been organised by different groups, but this one, registered with SCC, cannot be ignored. So if you sign only one petition, make it this one. A minimum of 10,000 signatures is needed, as quickly as possible, for a debate to be forced while it can still be effective.

You can also:-

  • Join #RASSU's campaign to receive updates.
  • Write to your MP to make them aware of the level of local opposition.
  • Email your family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and any local organisations you have associations with, to get them involved.

 
Finally, whatever views you hold on the subject, residents of Thames Ditton and Weston Green are invited to join the TDWGRA's Open Meeting (by Zoom) at 8pm, Tuesday 22 September when the SCC Unitary Proposal will be discussed. Click here for details.