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OPINION - Time to de-layer the council structure?

Peter Downes CC
Peter Downes CC

Nobody is in any doubt that local government services are coming under increasing pressure.

Demand is increasing: more children and young people, more older people, more people with disabilities and mental health needs.

At the same time, central government is reducing its grants and is capping the amount by which local councils can raise council tax. Add to that the increasing cost of providing services and nobody can deny that we have a ‘multiple whammy’.

Strenuous efforts have been made in recent years to cut central administrative costs and reduce back-office staff. Transforming the way services are provided is a high priority; for example, by the greater use of technology and by developing community resilience.

Even so, the financial pressure is enormous and it may well be time to reconsider the structure of local government to see if further savings can be found.

The introduction of a new tier of local government – the Combined Authority of Peterborough and Cambridgeshire with a directly-elected mayor – prompts the need to analyse the cost and effectiveness of having, in many parts of the area, parish/town councils, district councils and the county council, as well as the combined authority.

The parish/town council layer, the closest to people, should clearly be preserved and, indeed, its role enhanced. It is the least expensive tier as councillors are not remunerated; overheads and clerical costs are low.

But a question mark hangs over district and county councils. They have more expensive structures and buildings costs. Their functions overlap to some extent and the general public is not always sure of who is responsible for what.

So the county council agreed, at its last meeting of the present council, to ask officers to prepare detailed costings of what might be saved if a ‘unitary structure’ were to be adopted. This approach is already being introduced elsewhere in the country, sometimes, but not always, with significant savings.

The new county council to be elected on May 4 will be in position to consider the options on the basis of evidence rather than prejudice or self-preservation.

As custodians of the taxes local people pay, this must surely be our next challenge and responsibility.

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