Secret talks on creating Herts unitary authority first took place nine months ago

Secret talks on Hertfordshire becoming a unitary authority first took place last November, it has be

Secret talks on Hertfordshire becoming a unitary authority first took place last November, it has been revealed. - Credit: Archant

Secret talks looking at what a unitary council structure would mean for the county first took place NINE MONTHS ago, it has emerged.

The exploratory work – which estimates that a move to a single unitary council could save £142 million a year – was highlighted for the first time at a meeting of Herts county council last month.

But it has now emerged that the county council had instructed consultants to look at the option last November.

Opposition leader and Lib Dem Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst uncovered the details after submitting written questions.

He said the talks date to before the government announced there was to be a White Paper on devolution and before any public statements from the government.

He said this shows it this has been the “gameplan” of the Conservative leadership of the county council for almost a year.

Leader of the council’s Labour group Cllr Judi Billing is also concerned, admitting it was “a shock to discover that this work had been commissioned in secret – with no reference to the other political groups”.

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Defending the actions, executive member for resources and performance Cllr Ralph Sangster said reform of local government has been on the government agenda for many years.

He said after a decade of ‘spending constraints’, the county council wants to ensure the essential services that residents rely on remain sustainable: “We believe reviewing the way local government is organised is the best way to achieve that.”

He said consultants PwC were commissioned in November to confirm if there was a financial case for change – and have since been commissioned to develop an engagement strategy.

“It is our clear intention to have a wide ranging debate on the options available to reach a consensus on a way forward.

“To have raised this issue earlier before we had absorbed the report’s findings would have meant the discussions would have been ill-informed.

“The work commissioned to date totals £82,000, which in turn, based on the financial case previously published could save the residents of Hertfordshire £100 million per annum and therefore protect essential public services for the long term.”

Meanwhile the leaders of the 10 district and borough councils have since commissioned their own consultants to ‘explore’ alternative proposals for the future of local government in the county.

Cllr Giles-Medhurst says it is “disgraceful” that £80,000 should have been spent by the county council in this way without wider consultation.

He stressed that had the county council consulted opposition county councillors or district leaders in November, they could have “moved ahead together” – even if they had had different views.

He said that would have reduced the amount spent on consultants, which could have been better spent on local services.

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.

And the county council provides services such as education, libraries, social care, highways – and even the fire service.

Under a unitary system all 11 existing councils would be abolished and all services would be provided by the same council.

A unitary model for a county the size of Hertfordshire could potentially be large enough to include two – or even three – unitary councils.