Will a cash crisis force Lincolnshire to scrap its county council and seven district councils and opt for one tier of local government?
Conservative county council leader Martin Hill wants the public to decide on county election day, May 4, when it’s likely voters will be asked if they favour switching to a unitary authority.
The county council claims unitary governance could save up to £150million in the first five years, money that could be used to improve local services and keep council tax down.
Other than the principle, it is not clear what residents will vote on – whether it would be one, two or more unitary authorities covering the area now served by Lincolnshire County Council.
Coun Hill, who represents the Folkingham Rural ward, says we can no longer afford our current system, which he describes as “complicated, wasteful and no longer financially sustainable”.
However, councillors in Grantham have voiced their concerns over any moves towards a unitary authority for Lincolnshire – and say a town council is essential if it happens.
They say such an authority would be a major threat to Grantham which has little in the way of a local voice because it has no town or parish council.
Grantham Conservative district and county councillor Ray Wootten said: “If the proposal to create a unitary authority is successful, it is vital that a town council for Grantham is created to ensure that local people have control over their own destiny.”
The leader of the Labour Group on South Kesteven District Council, Charmaine Morgan, said Grantham could be left without a voice in any move towards a unitary authority. She added: “Grantham will be particularly vulnerable to change. The absence of a town council means we will have little collective voice in any debate regarding how a future unitary authority should look and how it may affect us locally. We are considering re-launching a town council campaign in light of this news.”
She added: “Although there may be some benefits with some key services coming together, such as housing and social care, there may also be serious ramifications should changes occur with other local services, jobs and local council assets being put at risk, especially given the stated aim is to make cost savings.
“It is not yet clear where the stated savings will come from. Each structure has pros and cons and associated costs. The options should be thoroughly examined in public so informed decisions can be made. A simple Yes or No question seems inadequate in the circumstances.”
While concerns were raised locally, Grantham MP Nick Boles said he was strongly in favour of the idea.
He said: “I have always believed that having both district and county councils operating in the same area as parish and town councils wasted money and confused voters. Maybe it could be justified when there was lots of money to go round but now that local government services face painful cuts to get the deficit down such duplication is no longer acceptable.
“I strongly support Martin Hill’s proposal for a referendum on the question. I am very keen to hear from constituents with their views about the plan and especially interested to know if they believe we should have one, two or more unitary councils to replace the current structure of seven overlapping districts and one county.”
Elsewhere, South Holland and the Deepings MP John Hayes has called for fellow MPs and council leaders to instead argue the case in Westminster for Lincolnshire to have more cash to keep its services running.
Coun Hill said he would welcome the backing of MPs to win extra funding.
“Last year, with the support of the MPs, we got an extra £7million but it wasn’t for every year,” said Coun Hill. “If we were able to get more money into the county that would be excellent.”
But Coun Hill now believes it would be better still if any extra cash were pumped into a more efficient system of unitary governance.
Does he favour one unitary authority to cover the area now served by Lincolnshire County Council?
“We are not really going down that road at all,” said Coun Hill. “I think the first decision is whether or not you want to go to a unitary system.
“Let’s talk about the principle first. There’s a possibility we could actually save money and be more efficient and, really, we ought to at least look at that idea – it would be a bit irresponsible not to even consider it.”
The poll of the county’s residents is subject to the approval of the county council.