By Tom Hunt and James Steel
Over the last few years, the Conservative-led Surrey County Council has proved utterly incapable of managing Surrey. The state of the roads is appalling, the county’s provision of children’s services remains inadequate according to Ofsted, and the council is currently consulting on the proposed closure of a number of Sure Start children’s centres. The list goes on.
Councillor David Hodge recently stepped down as head of Surrey County Council. In his resignation speech, he claimed that Surrey had lost £230m of funding since 2009. The council has undoubtedly faced budget challenges for a number of years, and residents have seen services pruned, rationed and cut altogether.
But why do we need Surrey County Council at all? A couple months back, a letter was published on The Dragon making the case for unitary authorities in Surrey. If implemented, the result would be the abolition of Surrey County Council and the eleven borough councils within Surrey, replaced by a number of new unitaries that would provide all services.
In many parts of England there are two tiers of local government; the County Councils and district, borough or city councils. Whereas in some parts of the country there is just one (unitary) tier of local government providing all the local services. The three main types are; unitary authorities in shire areas, London boroughs and metropolitan boroughs.
The County Council is responsible for services across the whole of the county including; education, transport, planning, fire and public safety, social care, libraries, waste management and trading standards. They also set council tax rates. The District, borough and city councils however have responsibility for rubbish collection, recycling, Council Tax collection, housing and planning applications. Under a Unitary authority all these services would be provided by the same local government body.
Removing a layer of government would certainly generate cost savings by avoiding the need for duplicate resources. It would also allow local government in Surrey to become more joined-up, and therefore more cost-effective. Currently, for example, local recycling centres are owned by Surrey County Council. The introduction of charges to use these recycling centres (the Tory “tip tax”) has led to an increase in fly-tipping across Surrey, but it is borough councils who bear the cost of clearing up the fly-tipping. So, notwithstanding any rebate claimed by the borough councils, Surrey County Council must be very pleased with the tip tax. It has however created more cost for Surrey borough councils than revenue collected, the hallmark of many bad ideas!
Surrey County Council’s latest planned budget cuts, a £200m slash, will involve the closure of two of the five children’s centres in Guildford Borough (Boxgrove Children’s Centre in Guildford and St Paul’s C of E Sure Start Centre in Tongham) and downgrading the status of the Ash Grange Centre to a satellite. Cutting these services will inevitably damage the daily lives of young children, especially those from families in need. Moreover, like the fly-tipping example above, this will create additional cost elsewhere, as schools and the NHS have to deal with issues that could otherwise have been managed by the children’s centres.
A unitary authority, with responsibility for all local services, would be much better placed to make sensible, cost-effective, and joined-up decisions for the benefit of all local residents. The only downside is that a few highly paid Conservative councillors might find themselves surplus to requirements.
Surrey Liberal Society and Guildford Liberal Democrats have come out in support of the abolition of Surrey County Council and the creation of unitary councils for Surrey. Not only would this induce cost savings, allowing funding for services currently under threat to be protected, but it would also allow decision-making to be made at a level closer to the residents.