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Maidstone council leader calls for borough and county council to be replaced with unitary authority

A Kent council leader is proposing a radical shake-up of the county’s “daft” political system, that would involve replacing his own authority with a super council.

Maidstone’s Cllr David Burton (Con) wants to follow the lead of Medway and break away from having bureaucracy at both county and borough level.

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Maidstone Council leader David Burton
Maidstone Council leader David Burton

Instead he is proposing that Kent is reduced to two or three unitary authorities – super-councils, with one responsible for all the services in each area.

Cllr Burton told Kent Online: “My starting point is that having been a councillor for 12 years, I’ve reached the point where I think the system we have is daft.

“Kent County Council (KCC) is responsible for the roads and transport, but Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) has to manage planning.

“There is no joined-up thinking and, what’s more, it’s confusing for residents. When you speak to people on the doorstep, few understand which authority is responsible for what.

“If they say, ‘why haven’t you mowed the verge?’ you have to explain, up to this point the grass is the borough’s responsibility, that bit belongs to KCC.”

Could Kent County Council's powers be broken up into smaller unitary authorities?
Could Kent County Council's powers be broken up into smaller unitary authorities?

Cllr Burton said: “Wouldn’t it just be sensible to have highways and planning in the same office?

“There is a different way of governing and I’m hoping we can move in that direction.”

He said: “We need a single point of responsibility. At the moment there are 14 councils in Kent. I think ideally that might be reduced to two or three.

“There would be financial savings too – we would be paying only, say, three chief executives, not 14.”

But Cllr Burton admitted there could be downsides.

What's the future for Maidstone Town Hall?
What's the future for Maidstone Town Hall?

He said: “The chief worry is how we could retain local responsibility, and not have decisions taken at too high a level.

“And inevitably we would need fewer councillors, so it’s a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.”

There has been a discussion about reforming our system of local government for many years.

In 2016, during a debate in Westminster Hall, it was proposed to blanket abolish tier district and borough councils in favour of single authorities with each ward member representing 15,000 electors each.

The Government has not adopted quite so radical approach, but has been encouraging the expansion of unitary authorities and elected mayors.

The fear of unitary authorities is that they might grow too far away from the voters
The fear of unitary authorities is that they might grow too far away from the voters

The idea of unitary authorities is fully adopted by the Maidstone Conservative Party, whose policy manifesto states: “In simple terms – we believe that the time for Kent County Council and Maidstone Borough Council to exist separately has ended.

“A single unitary authority approach will be more efficient, more cost effective and less confusing for our residents.”

There are regular meetings between the leaders of all the borough and district councils in Kent.

Cllr Burton said: “My sense is that quite a few leaders are in favour of unitary authorities in private, but getting people to stick their heads above the parapet is more difficult.”

Cllr Burton has no firm plan for the unitary authority he would want to see for Maidstone. He said: “We could look at linking with Tonbridge and Malling and with Tunbridge Wells, or there could be a link with north Kent, with Dartford, Gravesham and Medway.”

Alec Shelbrooke MP is seeking big changes. Pic: Richard Townshend, Creative Commons
Alec Shelbrooke MP is seeking big changes. Pic: Richard Townshend, Creative Commons

He said: “There are plenty of options. I recognise that any change is a long, long way off, not least because there would have to be a great deal of public engagement first.”

Any change would also require an Act of Parliament.

One of the key drivers for Cllr Burton is that he believes a unitary authority would find it easier to access Government funding.

He said: “There is money available under the Government levelling up and regeneration agenda.”

At the moment, Government grants are distributed through Local Enterprise Partnerships, quangos involving local authorities and businesses, but the Government had indicated it would rather deal directly with a unitary authority.

Cllr Clive English. Pic Peter Cooper
Cllr Clive English. Pic Peter Cooper

Cllr Burton believes that the public would support some form of unitary authority.

He said: “What we need to do is to start the conversation.”

As far as Cllr Burton’s political colleagues are concerned, most are supportive.

Clive English, the leader of the Maidstone Liberal Democrat Group, said: “The Lib Dems are in favour of a reasonably sized unitary authority.

“There will be need to be hard discussion on what is in that authority and how it works.”

Cllr Stuart Jeffery. Pic: Peter Cooper, MBC
Cllr Stuart Jeffery. Pic: Peter Cooper, MBC

Residents - and councillors - have often expressed their frustration over the disconnect between KCC’s approach to highways matters and the borough’s when it comes to planning issues.

Time after time, borough councillors say they would like to refuse some particular planning application on highways grounds, but say they can’t because KCC - the highways authority - has not objected.

There was even a case recently. when the borough’s planning committee deferred a decision on an application because they had no KCC highways officers present to advise them. However when the rescheduled debate came around KCC outright refused to send anyone.

But Cllr English said: “I think the driver here for Cllr Burton is not really the highways issue, although KCC Highways are a sick joke, but that the Government has a habit of imposing solutions where local authorities do not make progress themselves (towards a unitary authority) and neither he nor I want an imposed solution.”

Labour leader Cllr Maureen Cleator: Pic Peter Cooper, MBC
Labour leader Cllr Maureen Cleator: Pic Peter Cooper, MBC

Newly elected Green councillor Stuart Jeffery was also in favour. He said: “I am very supportive of a move towards Maidstone being a unitary authority.

“The current split in responsibilities does not serve the people well, but as democracy is best delivered as close to the electorate as possible, I would want no great expansion of the borough or wards.”

He said: “However, there is a need to work regionally too and I would prefer a call for a regional assembly to be part of any proposal.”

Cllr Jeffery said: “Areas such as London have a real advantage from theirs, so some form of regional assembly across the south east to deal with those issues that are best managed at that level would be helpful.”

Maureen Cleator, leader of the Labour group on Maidstone, ruled out a Kent-wide unitary authority as “unworkable”, but said: She said: “We would be totally against a Kent-wide unitary."

Cllr Rodney Chambers, Medway Council
Cllr Rodney Chambers, Medway Council

She said: “We would need to see any such proposals and they must be of benefit for the people we represent in terms of services and democratic accountability.

She said: “Having worked in local government the last time this happened in Kent, when Medway was formed, I can say that it is a very complex and long task as responsibility for statutory services would come under any new authority.”

But she said: “It is clear currently that there is much confusion among many in the public over which authority is responsible for providing which service.”

There is already one unitary authority in Kent – Medway council, which was formed in 1998 when the City of Rochester-upon-Medway amalgamated with Gillingham Borough Council. It now also provides to its residents the services such as highways, education and social services, that used to be provided through KCC.

Cllr Rodney Chambers was leader of the Conservative group at Gillingham, prior to the merger, and was one of the key figures in pressing ahead with the proposals. Cllr Chambers was later elected as leader of Medway Council in 2000, a post he held for 15 years.

He said: “One of the key issues for us was to become a strategic authority so that we could access the Government funding necessary to regenerate the Medway Towns following the closure of Chatham Dockyard.

“KCC were simply not at that time providing us with the support, particularly on highways, that was needed.”

Cllr Chambers said: “It was a challenging time, but we did have the support of central Government, and there was cross-party support here in Medway, and we achieved our aim.”

Cllr Chambers explained how an all-out election in 1997 formed the administration in waiting that would take over the new authority after a year of transition.

He said: “We had to appoint a new chief executive and new directors for all the statutory services that we were taking over from Kent."

'Maidstone would be too small to go it alone'

He said: “Because unitary authorities do everything, they have far more to do than ether county or district councils.”

Once the decision had been taken, KCC had co-operated with the de-segregation process and had re-assigned its local education and social services offices and staff in Medway to the new authority.

Cllr Chambers insisted the change had been a good thing for the residents of Medway. He said: “We are much more efficient at meeting their needs now, because we are local and we know what they are.”

But he did warn that Maidstone would be too small to go it alone. He said: “You have to have a sufficient size of population to generate the income to meet particularly the provision of the statutory services, which are seeing increasing demand every year.”

The population of the Medway Towns is around 280,000, while Maidstone’s is 155,000.

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