System serves itself and not the public, says reader

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Margot Parker MEP (Chad, August 8) is correct that a new unitary council for Nottinghamshire must protect and enhance local democracy if it replaces the current two-tier structure of county and borough/district councils, but the phrase ‘super council’ isn’t an accurate description of what a unitary authority would be.

A single Nottinghamshire unitary authority would have the same boundaries and population as the current county council. It would, however, have more elected councillors than the county council, so residents would be closer to their councillor and proportionally better represented in the county than before.

The county council is already responsible for 91 per cent of council services delivered in Nottinghamshire, overseen by 66 county councillors. It is an expensive anomaly that the remaining nine per cent of services are overseen by no fewer than seven separate district councils and a total of 287 councillors, each claiming a separate allowance from the public purse. Residents are additionally required to fund a separate chief executive, senior management team, headquarters and back office functions for each council.

A single-tier unitary authority of, say, 100 councillors would offer far better value than eight authorities with a total of 353 councillors. And you would still have locally-based services with local people delivering them, just as you do now.

The two-tier system of local government serves itself, rather than the public. It fails a basic test of local democracy, namely clarity of representation. If councillors are being honest, they will admit that their mailbags reveal frequent public confusion over which services are delivered by which council. We often find ourselves having to re-direct public enquiries to our counterparts in the ‘other’ authority and sometimes they even bounce between the two, which is infuriating for the resident stuck in the middle who just wants their issue resolving.

It is not our residents who should try harder to understand the difference between county and district councils, it is the councils themselves who should adapt to what residents in effect are telling us they need: ‘a one-stop shop’ for all services.

There are already 55 unitary councils in England compared with 27 areas where two-tier county/district arrangements are still in place. Until 1996, two-tier systems existed in Scotland and Wales, but these were then replaced by a single-tier system of local government, while in Northern Ireland a single-tier system has existed since 1973.

In addition to the democratic benefits, there is the compelling financial argument that if we do not find savings by modernising our systems of local government, then the gap in council budgets will instead have to be plugged by cutting popular services.

A unitary authority would not only give greater long-term security to local services such as libraries, children’s centres and register officers, it would also give these facilities a wider role as local outlets for a range of other services, moving a unitary authority closer to its residents than its county or district predecessors.

Coun Kay Cutts

Nottinghamshire County Council

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