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'Merging councils is better for the pocket'

Column by Nick Boles, MP for Grantham and Stamford

The people of this bit of Lincolnshire have this week elected new members to South Kesteven District Council.

How many of those who voted in these elections know which services are the responsibility of the district council and which are provided by Lincolnshire County Council?

Very few, I suspect.

I’ve been a Member of Parliament for nine years and even I don’t always remember which decisions are taken by which branch of local government.

Grantham and Stamford MP Nick Boles (8273574)
Grantham and Stamford MP Nick Boles (8273574)

It’s not just confusing, it’s also terribly inefficient. Both the district councils and the county council own offices, employ chief executives, finance directors and HR departments.

Each resident is represented by one or more district councillors and a county councillor too.

In many parts of the country, councils have reorganised themselves as unitary authorities. In some places – like Cornwall and Wiltshire – they have gone for a single unitary council for the whole county. In others they’ve gone for two or three or four unitary councils representing one or more districts.

Lincolnshire now needs to grasp this nettle. It is impossible to justify all these layers of local government after nine years of austerity when vital services for vulnerable children and older people have faced severe cuts.

The Conservative Party has usually resisted the reorganisation of local councils because many of its most active members are elected councillors, and some of them are both district and county councillors. With the elections out of the way they now need to put aside their own personal preferences and think hard about what is in the best interests of the people they serve.

I used to favour a single unitary council for the whole county. I no longer think that would be the best system. Lincoln is too far away, and the county council is too big and bureaucratic to make for a responsive council in touch with local residents’ needs.

Instead we should look to form two or three councils in the county by merging neighbouring district councils and devolving to them the powers and the budgets currently held by the county council. South Kesteven and South Holland district councils would be good candidates for merger as South Lincolnshire council. Maybe North Kesteven, too.

Local Conservatives will probably oppose this plan in public. Privately, they know that the current approach is indefensible.

One of the advantages of my current position outside the Conservative Party is that I can deliver some uncomfortable truths to the party and stimulate local debate.

If the dynamic young leadership team at South Kesteven District Council wants to make a real difference to local residents in the next four years, they should push for a reorganisation of government in Lincolnshire and bring it closer to the people they serve.

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