Grantham Journal column: It’s time to grasp the nettle and give us a streamlined county
In November, George Osborne explained how the Government will deliver on the promise we made to the British people during the election campaign and bring the country’s budget back into the black.
Although the Coalition government managed to halve the budget deficit between 2010 and 2015, we still have to raise new revenue and make further cuts to public spending if we are to get rid of the deficit and bring the country’s debts under control. Last week, Martin Hill, the leader of Lincolnshire County Council, set out the implications of these cuts for our county. He said that, after freezing council tax in four of the last five years, the county council would need to increase its bit of the council tax by 3.95% and I support that proposal. It was right to freeze council tax during the recession, when family budgets were under intense pressure. But now it is right to increase council tax a little so that we can pay for the social care that we need to support the elderly and vulnerable in our communities.
Increased revenues from council tax will help our county council balance its books, as will prudent use of financial reserves and sales of land and other assets. But we still face big cuts in spending on some of the services that councils provide - in fact the county council needs to make bigger cuts in the future than those it has already implemented in the last five years. That is why I believe it is now time for us to ask ourselves whether we can really afford to have two tiers of local government (three if you include parish and town councils): not just Lincolnshire County Council but seven district councils like South Kesteven, North Kesteven and South Holland.
The sole purpose of government at any level is to represent and serve the people. I believe that the people of Lincolnshire would be as well represented and better served by one or two unitary councils taking responsibility for delivering all of the services currently provided by both the county council and district councils. Many other parts of the country have already made this shift: Wiltshire and Cornwall have one unitary council serving their entire counties; Cheshire has gone for two unitary councils, Cheshire East and Cheshire West. Personally I favour a single unitary council for the whole county and the transfer of greater power over planning and the local environment to a revived town council in Grantham and parish councils in rural areas. But ultimately it isn’t something that MPs like me or government should decide: it is a decision for the people of Lincolnshire themselves. What I am certain of is this. We cannot justify spending more than £30 million a year on the administrative cost of our complex layer cake of local bureaucracy at a time when we are faced with the need for our county council to make further spending cuts of £170 million a year. Confronted with a choice between protecting local services and preserving two tiers of local government, I choose to protect local services. It’s time to grasp the nettle and give Lincolnshire a streamlined system of local government which will represent and serve local people best.