‘Single unitary council could save Herts £142m a year,’ says estimates by leader

David Williams, leader of Hertfordshire County Council. Photo: Pete Stevens.

David Williams, leader of Hertfordshire County Council. Photo: Pete Stevens. - Credit: Photo: Pete Stevens - CreativeEm

Estimates suggest that replacing all 10 of Hertfordshire’s district and borough councils with a single unitary council could save £142 million a year.

At a meeting of Hertfordshire County Council on Tuesday last week, council leader David Williams revealed that the county council had commissioned consultants to look at options for the future in Hertfordshire.

This comes after the announcement of the government’s wish for two-tier authorities – such as Hertfordshire – to move to a unitary model.

Leaders of all 10 district and borough councils have already publicly vowed to oppose any plans for a single unitary authority, but Cllr Williams said the change could deliver improved and more efficient services, as well as substantial savings.

“We have achieved a huge amount, working with the structures that we have,” he said.

“But these very structures are fast approaching their limit in terms of the changing economic and social environment.”

It was suggested during the meeting that replacing the current system with one unitary council could save up to £142m a year. Replacing it with two could save £105m a year.

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Those figures are believed to be part of a presentation that has been shared with leading councillors across the county.

Cllr Terry Hone, executive member for community safety and waste management, told the meeting that merging waste services could save up to £22m alone.

Cllr Williams initially raised the issue in a statement at the meeting, which meant that it was not debated – although it was referred to in some questions to the executive later.

This was questioned by Labour leader Cllr Judi Billing and Liberal Democrat leader of the opposition Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst.

Cllr Billing said it was an ‘enormously important’ and ‘massively biased’ statement and said that it was ‘extraordinary’ to allow the statement but not debate.

Meanwhile Cllr Giles-Medhurst ‘wondered’ whether a special council meeting needed to be called to discuss the statement, and asked whether statements on potential financial savings would be made available.

Council chairman Cllr Colette Wyatt-Lowe told the meeting that there would be an opportunity to debate this in much more depth at a later date.

Under Hertfordshire’s existing two-tier system the 10 district and borough councils provide a range of services such as planning, environmental health, bin collection, housing and licensing.

The county council provides services such as education, libraries, social care, highways – and the fire service. Under a unitary system all services would be provided by a single council.

At the meeting Cllr Williams pointed to “cost, complexity and overlap” in the current system – specifically highlighting the allowances currently paid to 526 councillors across Hertfordshire.

He added: “We can deliver improved and more efficient services, joining up agendas, such as social care and housing, that at present require 10 different sets of relationships to be developed.

“We know that structural reform could also result in substantial savings for the public purse, placing Hertfordshire in a more secure situation in the face of an uncertain financial outlook.”

Cllr Williams pointed to government declared intentions to “strengthen local institutions, including establishing more unitary authorities”.

He also reported that he had met with district and borough council leaders last Tuesday, to consider government plans for devolution and local government reform.

Within days of that meeting those leaders – representing all political parties – published a statement opposing a move towards a unitary authority.

Mr Williams described this as “disappointing” and said that they seemed intent on ruling out options, without considering the savings and efficiencies that could be made.

He also said there was a need to look at authorities such as Durham, Cornwall, Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire that had established unitary authorities.

As well as options for a single unitary council, there have been suggestions that Hertfordshire could be split into two or more unitary authorities.