Council leaders to Whitehall: 'Keep an open mind on unitary status'

Published Tuesday, 28 July 2020

The leaders of Surrey's 11 borough and district councils have urged Government ministers to keep an open mind on emerging proposals to change how local government works in the county.

At present services are provided by local borough councils, including Waverley, which organise refuse collection, planning, meals on wheels, social housing, environmental health and licensing, and Surrey County Council, which provides adults and children's services, highways, education and libraries.

During the spring, Government announced its interest in more areas of the UK becoming unitary authorities, where one council provides all services in a geographic area. It indicated that unitaries representing a population of 300,000 to 500,000 people would be acceptable.

Early-stage comments have been put forward to ministers by the Leader of the County Council, Cllr Tim Oliver, for a single Surrey-wide council serving 1.2million people. But the borough and district council leaders say that only by hearing all opinions can the wellbeing of residents be safeguarded.

In a joint letter to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the 11 council leaders say: "This is one of the reasons why it is so necessary to evaluate other options which may represent localities (and the characteristics of Surrey communities) more appropriately.... we would urge you to retain an open mind as to the future shape of local government in Surrey."

The councillors, representing every part of the county, call on Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to give them a fair hearing if the County Council is asked to submit a more detailed proposal.

The borough and district council leaders say: "We ask that if [you are] minded to invite a submission from Surrey County Council, you also invite business cases for one or more alternative models [of local government structure] from the combined efforts of the districts and boroughs of Surrey for the future of local government in Surrey.

"Only in this way can you be reassured that any decision about local government reorganisation in Surrey also safeguards the wellbeing of our residents, maximises the future transformation of the area, and secures its contribution to national prosperity."

Last week, Councillor John Ward, Leader of Waverley Borough Council, put forward a motion, which was approved by members across all independent and political parties at the Council, to oppose a single Surrey-wide unitary authority. Instead councillors felt the best way forward was to explore different options that would ensure local communities had a say in their local areas, including the county having a number of smaller unitary councils.   

Commenting on the latest letter to ministers, Cllr Ward said: “It is important that all views and options for the future of Surrey’s local governance and democracy are taken into account. We know that we need to embrace change, but we have to make sure it is the right change for our residents. I don’t want to see us rushing into something without exploring alternatives and listening to others’ views – and neither do any of the other councillors at Waverley. We all agree that a discussion as big as this, which will affect people’s lives and the services they receive, needs to be given proper consideration to ensure we get it right.”

Commenting on the letter, Cllr Nick Prescot, Leader of Runnymede Borough Council, and Chair of the Surrey Leaders' Group, said: "This is not just a question for people interested in the local politics bubble. The way councils are run, the priorities they choose and their local accountability affects the lives of everyone living in Surrey.

"We know some form of change is likely and there will be considerable debate across the county, and we welcome all the discussions so people can have their say. What we're asking for from Government is a level playing field so all views can be assessed equally and fairly."


Read the Surrey Leaders letter in full


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