County unitary authorities ‘could save £2.9bn’

A new report by the County Councils Network (CCN) has claimed that creating 27 county unitary authorities could generate nationwide savings of nearly £3 billion.

Conducted by consultancy firm EY, the financial analysis highlighted the benefits of replacing each of the 27 two-tier authorities in England with one unitary authority could save between £2.4 billion and £2.9 billion nationally - up to £106 million in every county.

This means that the move could save 68 per cent more than the option of creating two unitaries in each county area – and creating three unitaries per county could be even more costly than the current structures.

The report discussed how modelling three unitaries with a combined authority could cost up to £14 million over five years. Such a model has been proposed in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Despite insisting that the research was not to advocate reorganisation, but simply to inform debate, the report concluded that county-wide reorganisation delivered the best chance of efficiency savings, and financial sustainability, alongside the best platform for economic growth and public service transformation.

Cllr Paul Carter, chairman of the CCN, reiterated that each system has its merits and challenges, commenting: “A clear conclusion from the report is that there are real risks in splitting up the historic counties of England, in terms of both savings and maintaining good public services.

“Instead, the evidence strongly suggests the most effective means of structural reform – whether through unitary or two tier models – are those that build on the scale and geography of county councils.”

However, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach provoked a backlash from the District Councils’ Network (DCN) which claimed that there should be ‘greater focus on place-based public sector reform’, reflecting the economic geography of communities.

Neil Clarke, chairman of the DCN, commented: “The national agendas for housing and industrial strategy must be mapped around Functional Economic Areas, housing market areas and travel to work areas that resonate with the daily lives of the 22 million residents we serve, and not ancient ceremonial boundaries.

“As a network, the DCN is clear that when it comes to devolution it should be for local areas to determine what works best for their locality and many of our members have demonstrated an appetite for the transformation of local services where there is local need and consensus. One size does not fit all.”