County deal is not about a unitary authority, says Surrey leader

Surrey leader County Cllr Tim Oliver (credit: Surrey County Council)
By Julie Armstrong, Local Democracy Reporter, 26 August

Surrey puts itself forward to pilot a “county deal” that would see more powers go to the county council, but its leader insists it’s not a plan for a new unitary authority.

In his ‘levelling up’ speech last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to give more powers to local government and invited county leaders to come forward with suggestions.

But a  letter sent by Surrey County Council leader Tim Oliver to register interest earlier this month has caused some panic this may signal the return of last year’s much criticised bid for a single countywide local authority replacing all others in the county.

According to Councillor Oliver (Con, Weybridge), this is not what the county deal is about.

Cllr Oliver said: “The unitary concept per se is not dead but it’s not something the county council is going to take forward, it’s not what we’re asking for.”

Opposition county councillors are unhappy that this letter – which says Surrey would like to be considered for a pilot ‘county deal’ before the government’s levelling up white paper comes out in the autumn – was sent without their knowledge.

Councillor Eber Kington (RA, Ewell Court, Auriol & Cuddington) said: “This is not consensus politics. You get consensus by trusting people to know from the start.

“The fundamental point about democracy is that it’s open and transparent. We’re always playing catch-up.”

He said he thought Cllr Oliver should have made the direction of local government an election issue, adding: “That way voters could decide but he chose not to.”

The Residents Association and Independent group leader Nick Darby has written to Cllr Oliver on the group’s behalf, urging him to “involve the opposition, boroughs and districts, and the residents of Surrey in this process, every step of the way”.

Liberal Democrats group leader Will Forster also said he was disappointed. He said: “If there is going to be a county deal for Surrey, the process is needs to be open, transparent and inclusive. The county council must learn its lesson from the failed unitary authority bid that cost around £250,000 and not repeat the same mistakes.”

Cllr Oliver told the LDRS: “With all due respect there was a very short timescale, and most of them are away. We are the administration.

“It was a benign letter simply registering an interest; what’s important is what we now put together and all members of the county council will be involved and hopefully districts and boroughs too.”

Along with others in the national County Councils Network which he chairs, he spoke on Monday (August 23) with MP Neil O’Brien, the prime minister’s ‘levelling up’ adviser.

He said the meeting was about trying to get a better understanding of what the government is thinking, something he still does not have absolute clarity on. He said they want a “sensible geographical area and strong leadership but they haven’t been prescriptive.”

He said “we don’t know yet” what exactly a county deal means for Surrey, “It’s an iterative process”.

He would like to see the council’s partners, such as police, health and charities, getting together on a regular basis so their agendas align.

He is keen for Surrey to be one of the imminent pilot schemes and wants further devolved powers from central government in areas the county already has some responsibility, such as skills and transport and infrastructure.

The letter of August 10, to local government secretary Robert Jenrick, reads: “As you have made clear you are looking to work with those who share your ambition to remove complexity, reduce the cost of local government, and ensure financially sustainable models of delivery, through empowering strong local leaders and devolving power to local places and closer to citizens, with new County Deals. Surrey is well-placed and, as you will be aware, well-advanced to take full advantage of this approach.”

Asked what he meant by removing complexity, Cllr Oliver said it was about greater efficiencies, such as having a single waste contract. “And that’s where there will be a conversation with districts and boroughs,” he said.

“This is not a local government restructure or in any way subsuming district and borough’s powers. It’s, can we streamline, use economies of scale?

“Without impacting on the sovereignty of the districts and boroughs we’ve got to try to save money.”

Guildford Borough Council leader Joss Bigmore, new chair of the Surrey Leaders’ Group that represents Surrey’s 11 district and borough council leaders, said he recognised “every council has financial struggles” and thinks this is a “positive step”.

He said: “We welcome the letter that Surrey wants a county deal.

“We’re very pleased to see his comments about working together with districts and boroughs. It is time to look forward.”