Warwickshire County Council voted to start a conversation about moving towards a new form of local government in Warwickshire by submitting its Strategic Case for Change to Government.
Where we are
We know that Warwickshire will not be in the first group of councils invited to submit proposals for unitary government. We are pleased that the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government has indicated he would value the opportunity to see how our vision on the future of local government in Warwickshire is developing. This is an opportunity to continue the thinking in this area and inform Government thinking about local government reform for Warwickshire.
In Warwickshire there seems to be a general consensus that the current model of local government is no longer sustainable and that change is needed This remains the case, especially given the major challenges we face now and in the medium-term as a result of Covid. We will continue to press for reform for Warwickshire and we will work closely with those who live, work and do business here, as well as Government as we develop this approach.
Local Government in Warwickshire
In Warwickshire we have a county council, five district and borough councils together with over 200 town and parish councils.
Currently, the district, borough and county councils all provide different services,
A unitary council structure for Warwickshire would see all services provided through one or more councils. Town and parish councils would remain, and could be expanded and strengthened across the whole county, with additional resources and powers.
Why we are looking at reform in Warwickshire
To ensure we are well prepared for the Government’s Devolution and Recovery White Paper which is widely expected to offer ‘devolution deals’ to county areas, which could provide additional powers, resources and investment in return for changes in how local government is structured. These changes would streamline the current structures by creating a single tier of local government.
At this stage we do not know the final detail of what will be in the White Paper but we do know that we want Warwickshire to have access to, and be considered for, any opportunities that it may present.
As many other parts of England are putting themselves forward, Warwickshire County Council wants to preserve and protect Warwickshire’s position in advance of the White Paper.
Regardless of the White Paper, councils can in any case seek an invitation from Ministers to submit proposals for change in local government structures at any time. The Covid-19 pandemic means that radical change and reform will likely be required if Warwickshire, like other parts of the UK, is to recover to a sustainable and successful future.
Like many, we believe that a unitary structure would help deliver, simpler and better value services to our residents, communities and businesses. The submission also reflects our wish to take early steps to help address the very significant financial challenges facing the existing six councils, which we estimate as a cumulative funding gap of £62 million by 2025/26 if nothing else changes.
About the Case for Change
A Strategic Case for Change document was considered by Cabinet on 27 August and 29 September. Following a full Council meeting on 22 September Councillors voted in support of submitting the Case for Change to Government.
The submission sought an invitation from Government to enter into conversation and consideration of the future local government structure for Warwickshire.
The Case for Change is not a final proposal; it was intended to start an ongoing, long-term conversation – locally and nationally - about what local government reform could mean for Warwickshire.
Response from Government
We have received a response from the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government. The letter acknowledges the considerable progress made in Warwickshire looking at the opportunities for local government reform.
The Minister confirmed that invitations have been issued to Councils in Cumbria, Somerset and North Yorkshire, and with Government resources rightly focused on the continuing pandemic response, this would be the extent of the formal invitations at this time.
The Minister has indicated that whilst Warwickshire has not received a formal invitation at this time, he would value the opportunity to see how our vision on the future of local government in Warwickshire is developing.
Devolution changes the way decisions are made for local areas and how public services are funded.
In England, devolution is the transfer of power and funding from national to local government. It is important because it ensures that decisions are made closer to the local people, communities and businesses they affect.
Devolution will provide greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, meaning councils can work more effectively to improve public services for their area.
Despite some speculation, no discussions have taken place about having an elected mayor for Warwickshire, and a proposal for an elected mayor does not feature in the Case for Change.
Recovery from Covid-19
Ahead of the White Paper on Devolution and Recovery, Government has indicated that keeping things as they are may no longer be a viable option. And in Warwickshire there is consensus that things need to change.
We anticipate that the approach set out in the White Paper will be strongly linked to recovery from Covid-19, levelling up of the economy and building stronger communities.
Therefore, many local authorities, especially those in a two-tier local council system like we have here in Warwickshire, are thinking about what this might mean and are looking at the options that may be available.
All councils are facing an uncertain and challenging future as well as continuing financial pressure. While our ongoing, and primary focus remains on containing the virus, it is important that we look at the actions we need to take to give Warwickshire a sustainable and successful future as we recover from Covid-19.
As part of a unitary structure, services currently delivered by the county, district and borough councils would all be delivered by one or more new unitary council(s).
In other ‘two-tier’ areas there has been the move from separate district/borough and county councils to unitary authorities. And many other local authorities are currently thinking about what Local Government Reform might mean for them.
Cost and savings
There would be transitional costs in the move from the existing arrangements to a new single tier of local government in Warwickshire.
However significant amounts of money would then be saved year on year at a time when the economy and public finances are under severe strain, with the potential for further savings in the future.
The Case for Change anticipates payback of investment in reorganisation within 18 months, and recurrent annual savings of at least £22 million annually.
Fewer savings would be made with more than one council as there would still be duplication across the two, or more, unitary authorities, and additional costs of splitting up services currently provided on a county-wide basis such as Social Care services, Fire and Rescue, Education and Highways.
We are in the early stages of exploring the options that may be open to Warwickshire. We are anticipating that the White Paper will potentially present opportunities for local authorities to submit one or more proposals for change
Government requires that proposals for change command a good deal of local support across the area concerned, so any final proposals put to Government would need to demonstrate this support through public engagement.
We now know that Warwickshire will not be in the first group of councils invited to submit proposals for unitary government; however, the Minister has recognised our progress and stated his willingness to work with us as we develop our vision for the future of local government reform in Warwickshire. If Ministers do make a formal invitation to Warwickshire in the future, this would involve all the six Warwickshire councils working up proposal/s for change. The development and submission of a Full Business Case would require full engagement between councils, our residents, businesses, voluntary and community sectors and public sector partners.
We are committed to engaging closely and transparently with communities, residents, our businesses and partners as we develop our plans for reform and intend using a range of different ways to engage with and seek the views of our Warwickshire communities. This will be an important element of shaping any future proposals that the Council may put to Government.
This is complex area and there are many different factors to consider when looking at how to set new Council Tax levels for the future. One of the complex factors is the impact of the additional precept for town and parish councils in some parts of the county. The precept is the amount of money Councils collect through council tax for their activities.
Any plans would need to be worked up with partners and residents and would ultimately be subject to Government approval following appropriate engagement and consultation. If there was a new council, the focus would be on ensuring there was a fair and equitable approach to Council Tax levels across the county.
Not a takeover
This is not about one council taking over. This is about creating a new form of local government for Warwickshire.
We want to ensure the best deal for Warwickshire; we believe change is necessary to secure this; and we are seeking to show the leadership needed for Warwickshire to be able to develop firm proposals for change.
It is important to stress that this would create one or more entirely new organisations from all six of the current councils.
Any move to one or more unitary councils in Warwickshire would see all six councils abolished. This is not a takeover - Warwickshire County Council would also be abolished in any new structure.
At this stage it is far too early to talk about what new organisations may emerge or how potential new structures may be implemented.
Joint working with district and borough councils
We have achieved a huge amount working with our partners across Warwickshire.
We work well together, we respect each other and all councils do a great job.
The pursuit of a new structure reflects the weaknesses of the current two-tier structure, rather than reflecting on any of the individual councils.
We remain totally committed to working in partnership with our district and borough colleagues, particularly as we move through the Covid-19 recovery phase to ensure the best outcome for Warwickshire’s residents. This will not change. We will continue to work well together on many shared issues.
A unitary form of local government provides the opportunity to combine the best of the county and district and borough councils, and attract additional powers and resources from Government to use locally to the benefit of residents, communities and businesses.
The Government has indicated that new single tier councils are expected to serve ‘substantially in excess of 300,000 to 400,000 residents.’ Warwickshire’s current population is approximately 578,000.
Detailed proposals for any new council or councils would need to be worked up in any next stage. The organisational designs, whatever the size of population served, would need to balance scale with a close focus on local places.