West Midlands NO!

Regional government: unelected, undemocratic, unaccountable and unwanted

Bridgnorth to have a poll on unitary council

Posted by Ken on January 5, 2007

The Shropshire Star reports that Bridgnorth district council is to hold a poll in order for the people across the Bridgnorth district to have their chance to have a say on plans for a single unitary council for Shropshire the poll will take place next week. Ballot papers for the unitary authority vote will be sent out to all eligible electors across the district and will be arriving through letter boxes on Monday and Tuesday.

The questions will be which of two options they prefer

continuing the current arrangements of county and district councils

or creating a single unitary council for Shropshire.

Voters are being urged to return their completed ballot paper immediately, in the pre-paid envelope provided, to the Independent Scrutineer at Electoral Reform Services.

The final date for receipt of ballot papers is noon on January 22.

Councillor Elizabeth Yeomans, leader of Bridgnorth District Council, said: “The implications of a major local government reorganisation for people who live and work in the district would be significant.

“Some of the concerns we have about One Council for Shropshire include the fact that local people need local services that are delivered and managed locally – the case produced by Shropshire County Council and its partners does not provide detailed evidence to show how services will get better.”

It is very nice to see that at least Bridgnorth council seems to belive in the democratic principal even as the rest of the Shropshire councils do not want the public to become involved in their plans.

I am however a little confused by the questions being asked, Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive, Shropshire County Council told me that the government had made it clear that the Status quo is not an option before when Christmas I asked why it was not an option this was her reply on the Council Blog:

Dear Ken Adams,

The Government has made it very clear that they expect cost-effective services for local people – and have asked shire councils across the country to look at three ways of doing this. The first one is creating new all-purpose unitary councils that would deliver all the services in their area. The second option is for councils to pioneer highly innovative approaches to working together, for example by pooling senior management and support staff or delivering individual services seamlessly. The third is to look for savings and improved services by the district councils and county council working more closely together in partnership. The government has also told us all that, whatever happens, we cannot stay as we are – councils will have to find better ways of working in order to release the savings and service benefits you can get from coming together as One Council. We believe that it will be impossible to find the equivalent level of financial efficiencies from closer partnership working that you can achieve with one council.

Retaining six councils retains six lots of bureaucracy and overheads, and whilst efficiencies could be found they will not be anywhere near the £7.8 million from a unitary council. We have already worked hard as councils in Shropshire to make services more seamless. For example, the county and four of the five districts/boroughs have let a contract which combines the waste collection and waste disposal services. This has taken 8 years to achieve and still 30% of the county’s population is omitted from the contract because one district has chosen not to participate.

The government in its White Paper says that over two, four and six years it will monitor councils in two tier areas that do not become unitaries, to ensure that similar levels of efficiency are delivered from enhancing two tiers. If these efficiencies are not delivered it follows that they will be taken from the financial settlement as the only way the government can enforce their ruling. This is too great a risk and would jeopardise services in the county and is the reason why Shropshire County Council, Oswestry Borough Council and South Shropshire District Council are supporting the move to One Council for Shropshire.

The other point at issue is the excuses offered by Shropshire County council for not offering a referendum to the rest of us. Also on the Council Blog

 

Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive, Shropshire County Council 27/11/2006 16:14:33

Dear Meole Man

Thank you for your contribution to the Blog regarding a referendum. Forgive me for giving such a detailed response, but it is important that people understand the advice the County Council has received on this matter.

When Ministers visited Shropshire in February this year to discuss local government structures, they met with service users and residents, business representatives, Councillors (County, District and Borough, Town and Parish levels), Chief Executives and our major partners (police, health, Learning and Skills Council, voluntary sector etc). They heard a strong response that unitary local government was change worth consideration. As a result, David Miliband, MP, wrote to all participants saying that we should not wait for the publication of the White Paper to take our work forward.

We therefore immediately considered how to ascertain and involve the views of local people in taking this work forward. Our legal advice is that neither we, nor any other local government partner in Shropshire, have the powers to undertake a referendum. We do, however, have the legal powers to undertake a postal survey/ballot regarding the services we provide.

Accordingly, we took advice from MORI who are advisors to the Local Government Association and conduct such work for many local authorities. The advice from MORI’s Chairman was:

Consulting residents on such issues is immensely challenging. Residents generally know very little about the complexities of local government structure, nor do they normally see it as important as the quality of services. Deliberative workshops allow residents to develop an informed view, by giving them time to debate the issues as they learn more about them, and seeing how informed views differ from less informed ones. They provide greater insight into residents’ views than a questionnaire based survey, and let you understand the arguments for and against a particular option.

Accordingly the County Council undertook a survey regarding customer satisfaction levels with our services with over 1,000 residents. From the 1,000 residents they invited a completely representative sample of 44 residents from all parts of the County to focus group discussions. This work is really research and not consultation, but is entirely informative and statistically valid. The full results – not selective quotes – are included in our business case at Appendix One, pages 57-99. They include some very different views, both for and against changes in local government structures, though overwhelmingly, as the report says, most people do not claim to know a great deal about local government at all and are hazy about who does what in two tier local government in Shropshire.

We have addressed the issues raised by residents in our business case which are:-

(1) what will it cost;

(2) will services improve;

(3) will rural areas have a voice;

(4) will my community be represented;

(5) what has been the experience elsewhere;

(6) will the boundaries make sense.

Nevertheless, if a ballot is undertaken with a question which conforms to the law and which presents an alternative to unitary local government (the status quo is not an option), then the County Council will provide the information to enable the public to make an informed decision.

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