Business Eye: We need to cut councils and end cash bonfire

Alex Pratt
Alex Pratt

One subject that bubbles regularly to the surface is the unaffordability of local government. So I was interested to read in last week’s Bucks Herald that AVDC is planning to take a closer look.

Bucks Business First and FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) research of the local business community endorses the view that the current system of parish, town, district and county councils is felt by many to be unnecessarily clumsy, costly and cumbersome, and a single Bucks unitary council has had the support of local Lib Dems and independents for some time.

This is unsurprising when ‘English local government is enduring eye-watering reductions in revenue support grant which are threatening basic activities in social services, housing, environmental services, libraries and local voluntary bodies’ – not my words but those of the Labour shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie, who earlier this month made clear that a future Labour government would actively seek more council integration.

In 2012, the Local Government Association itself published a report highlighting a looming funding gap of £16.5 billion a year by 2019/20.

This is no small beer. When Shropshire turned six separate councils into one, it cut costs by £66 per resident per year. Northumberland saved £85 million or £90 per person per year.

When it was last considered in Bucks in 2006, estimated savings then were more than £6 million a year, meaning more than £45 million of our money has already been wasted since. When will this cash bonfire end?

An Ernst & Young study has just concluded that Leicestershire would save £90 million over five years, protecting many frontline services.

Probably the biggest impact on Aylesbury residents is that a place fought over by joint committees of competing councils has created a down at heel county town in one of the richest places in the world.

The strongest brake on rapid progress could come from the councils themselves.

The number of councillors will be cut, and this will take strong leaders to do what is right for our community, above their personal or their institutions’ protective interests – a bit like FW de Klerk opening the door for Nelson Mandela.

And as Nelson Mandela told us: “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”