You may have recently received a leaflet through your letterbox from Surrey County Council headed “Summer 2020”. On the third page you will see that the Leader of the Council (our Conservative Weybridge County Councillor), Tim Oliver, is proposing a major reform of local democracy.
There is no doubt that the proposed imposition of a single council for Surrey, a ‘unitary authority’, will have been discussed by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, and the leaders of Conservative-held counties. Indeed, Cllr Oliver caught even his own Conservatve councillors by surprise when he announced at Council in July that there would be a re-organisation of local government structures and that “this would be in line with the government agenda” and would require “working with government as it presses ahead with the devolution white paper”.
While a unitary authority would undoubtedly bring some financial benefits by eliminating the eleven borough and district councils in Surrey that have seen their financial support from central government reduced significantly over the last ten years, the key question is how a monster council serving 1.2 million people would be able to serve the interests of local residents. The SCC leaflet supports the plan by stating that ‘We want a council that gives real power to local communities’. The Leader, in his statement to the council envisages “A new model of local government, combined with increased powers devolved down to a much more local level” – one wonders how much community power could be asserted, given the size of a single Surrey authority.
Are the government’s proposals in fact another manifestation of the Johnson/Cummings desire to centralise as much as possible – a trend started under Margaret Thatcher? Is it a thinly-veiled attempt to eliminate those troublesome borough councils that are not Conservative controlled? If we get one unitary authority across the whole of Surrey it is likely that Surrey would forever be in the hands of a Tory majority. This proposal, however, is not the only way of rationalising the two tier system in Surrey.
Liberal Democrat councillors in Surrey support the development of single-tier authorities across Surrey as the most cost-effective and customer-centric way forward. They note that one county-wide council would be remote and unaccountable. They suggest instead that we should explore dividing the existing Surrey boroughs into three or four authorities. So, for example, Spelthorne, Runnymede and Elmbridge councils could be combined into a single administrative area taking on all the responsibilities currently divided between the boroughs and the county.
Full government proposals will be revealed in a ‘Recovery and Devolution’ White Paper on local democracy to be published in early autumn. It looks certain that there will be changes. Please let us know your views. Please also contact Tim Oliver and your local MP so they can gauge the response of residents to their proposals.
You may also like to join #Residents Against Surrey Single Unitary (#RASSU). You can find out more information at: https://rassu.org.uk/ . You can sign their petition: http://petitions.surreycc.gov.uk/unitary/ and join the campaign: https://rassu.org.uk/join-the-campaign