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Scrapping Kent's 13 smaller councils and merging them into unitary authority could generate massive savings, report says

Scrapping Kent's 13 smaller councils and merging them into a larger unitary authority could generate major savings, a report says.

The County Councils Network (CCN) dossier says a single unitary authority in each of the 25 remaining two-tier areas - like Kent - could save around £3billion over the next five years in a "compelling" financial case for councils.

Axing local councils could save billions, a report claims Picture: Stock by PA
Axing local councils could save billions, a report claims Picture: Stock by PA

The publication of the 73-page CCN report comes ahead of a Government white paper which is expected to outline major reforms to local government.

Swale Borough Council Leader Roger Truelove (Lab), who warned about the "encroachment" to local democracy said he would resist the idea, adding: “Kent, in my view, is too big to be a unitary authority on its own.”

However, Cllr David Williams, chairman of the CCN, said: “Unitary counties won’t lead to a democratic deficit. Rather, as evidenced by authorities that have already made this journey, they have the potential to bring services closer to residents."

The proposal put forward by CCN would see around 213 smaller councils in England scrapped and replaced with 25 new and larger local authorities. It is hoped this would "safeguard" council services in the wake of the pandemic.

In Kent, this would likely mean the 12 district councils and single unitary authority could merge with Kent County Council (KCC) as the largest authrority in the area which covers around 1.5 million people.

Cllr Vince Maple (Lab) says changes in north Kent could work Picture: Callum Thomas
Cllr Vince Maple (Lab) says changes in north Kent could work Picture: Callum Thomas

Medway Cllr Alan Jarrett (Con), who is the leader of the only unitary authority in Kent which was set up in 1998, said he would not support the idea of "major reform" to the way local government is run in Kent.

At a virtual cabinet meeting on Tuesday, he added: "Without an effective local government and proactive sector we would not be in an improving position as a country that we are now."

The CCN says it does not favour creating multiple unitaries for each area because that would mean "splitting up" children's social services and adult social care departments which are currently overseen by county councils.

It would also mean that different councils would be "competing" over scarce care providers at a time when demand for social care will likely rise post-coronavirus, the CCN adds.

Tunbridge Wells council leader Alan McDermott (Con) said the Government should not forget the "trust" and "confidence" the public has in local councils and councillors, which far exceeds that of Government.

He added: "Covid-19 has shown that you cannot manage crises from Whitehall."

Plans for an East Kent "super council" involving four authorities including Dover, Folkestone, Thanet and Canterbury were mooted in 2017 but never progressed.

Medway Council opposition leader Vince Maple (Lab) said he could see a North Kent unitary authority working logistically.

Bournemouth merged from four councils into one in April 2019, covering an area of around 450,000 people.

But, Cllr Maple said he believes that a county-wide one “would be too big” and tweeted earlier today: "It would be wrong if the change is just imposed."

Dover Council says it is "reviewing all potential options" while Ashford Borough Council said it would await further details to come officially from the Conservative Government before commenting.

The tight-lipped Whitehall administration has kept its cards close to its chest ahead of the white paper outlining its proposal.

A spokesman for the department of Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick said: "We’re committed to levelling up all areas of the country and empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster.

"We’ll set out our detailed plans in the White Paper that will be published this autumn.”

Kent County Council's main opposition leader Rob Bird (Lib Dem) described any potential reform as "enormously disruptive".

He said: "I think the government is fighting very hard for unitary authorities and elected mayors.

"Although I do not think there is much appetite in Kent, I think it's inevitable that change will happen in the next few years."

KCC has been approached for comment.

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