In my written statement of 1 November 2018 (HCWS 1058) to the House, I committed to set out in due course the specific circumstances in which I would be prepared to issue a formal invitation to councils under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, to submit proposals for the establishment of new unitary councils.
Today I am confirming the circumstances in which I would be prepared to issue such an invitation; how I intend to assess any unitary proposals councils make in response; and our continued approach to any proposals two or more district councils may make to merge in order to form a new larger district council.
Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can – with local support – be an appropriate means of ensuring more sustainable local government and local service delivery, enhanced local accountability, and empowered local communities. This statement today continues the Government’s commitment to supporting those councils that wish to combine, to serve their communities better and will consider unitarisation and mergers between councils when locally requested.
However, I recognise that unitarisation may not be appropriate everywhere. I also recognise that it is essential that any local government restructuring should be on the basis of locally led proposals and should not involve top-down Whitehall solutions being imposed on areas. The Government does not support top-down unitary restructuring. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010.
Today, I want to provide further clarity for those councils who might consider the possibility of restructuring, by setting out the factors councils should consider and the processes to be followed – including with regard to local support.
For councils wishing to restructure to form unitary local government, the first step of the statutory process as set out under the 2007 Act is for me to issue an invitation to councils to submit proposals. There are two circumstances in which I will consider issuing such an invitation.
The first circumstance is where the following two conditions are met:
- There is a local request for an invitation.
- That I consider that the request demonstrates local opinion is coalescing around a single option which is reasonably likely to meet the existing publicly announced criteria for unitarisation.
In forming my view I would carefully consider the request, including the groups making and supporting it and their reasons for so doing. Where I issue an invitation, I would do so to all those councils that I consider to have regard to the area concerned, whether or not they were among those who had made the original request.
The second circumstance is where I consider that doing so would be appropriate given the specific circumstances of the area, including in relation to the long-term sustainability of local services. This is the situation in which my predecessor, the Rt Hon Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), issued an invitation to the councils in Northamptonshire.
Following such an invitation, it would be for the councils concerned to decide whether to develop and submit proposals for unitarisation, either individually or jointly by two or more councils.
I confirm that I will assess any locally-led unitary proposal that I receive against the criteria for unitarisation which we announced to Parliament in 2017 and which I and my predecessor have consistently used since then. These criteria state that subject to Parliamentary approval a proposal can be implemented, with or without modification, if I conclude that across the area as a whole the proposal is likely to:
- improve the area's local government;
- command a good deal of local support across the area; and
- cover an area that provides a credible geography for the proposed new structures, including that any new unitary council’s population would be expected to be in excess of 300,000.
On district council mergers, I confirm that where two or more district councils submit a proposal to merge, I will assess this against the criteria for mergers which we announced to Parliament in November 2017 and which we have used since then. The statutory process for such mergers does not involve my inviting proposals, and I recognise that particularly small district councils may wish to propose merging as a natural next step following a number of years of successful joint working, sharing of services and senior management teams.
The criteria for district council mergers are that, subject to Parliamentary approval, a proposal to merge would be implemented if I had reached a judgement in the round that if so implemented it would be likely to:
- improve the area’s local government;
- command local support, in particular that the merger is proposed by all councils which are to be merged and there is evidence of a good deal of local support; and
- the area is a credible geography, consisting of two or more existing local government areas that are adjacent, and which, if established, would not pose an obstacle to locally-led proposals for authorities to combine to serve their communities better and would facilitate joint working between local authorities.
This statement is intended to provide clarity to councils and communities and help ensure that time and effort are not wasted on pursuing proposals which are unlikely to get the go ahead. It is important that those seeking to pursue locally led proposals are confident that there is a broad basis of common local support for the proposals to avoid unnecessary local conflict and distraction from the delivery of quality public services. The statement underlines the need for any proposals to be innovative, improve services, enhance accountability, have local support and deliver financial sustainability if they are to be taken forward.
Moreover, restructuring is only one of the different ways that councils can move forward. Joint working with other councils and partners could also be an appropriate and sustainable way forward. Such joint working can take a variety of forms ranging from adopting joint plans, setting up joint committees, and sharing back office services, to establishing Combined Authorities, and may extend across county boundaries. Those in an area will know what is best – the very essence of localism to which the Government remains committed.