Leaders of councils in Surrey consider unitary authority proposals

David Grantham, 14 September 2020

Cllr Mark Brunt gave an update in a video to Reigate & Banstead residents

The leader of Reigate & Banstead Borough council, Cllr Mark Brunt, has said that all options are on the table for the leaders of Surrey’s boroughs and districts as they look to have their say on the future shape of local government in the county.

A Government white paper expected this autumn could pave the way for the two layers of local government in Surrey to be reduced to one.

The leader of Surrey County Council has suggested that the county council could become a single unitary authority, taking over the functions of the county’s 11 borough and district councils.

But the leaders of the boroughs and districts are working up their own proposals, with Reigate & Banstead among the councils supporting that work.

Reigate & Banstead is one of Surrey’s 11 borough and district councils that could be abolished

On Friday (11 September), Cllr Brunt, leader of Reigate & Banstead, said that the Government’s recovery and devolution white paper “is expected to be published very soon”.

He continued: “Myself and the leaders of the 11 boroughs and districts across Surrey embrace this opportunity and have collectively launched a ‘Putting Residents First’ campaign with the aim of transforming the way that local government is run and delivered in Surrey.

“And to bring decision making and services closer to the communities and residents which those councils serve.

“Council leaders agree that our proposals will centre around simplifying and improving local government and all options are on the table.”

“Key elements of our approach will include providing residents with easier access and local services and ensuring that the democratic accountability remains strong.”

“Our proposals will be informed by new thinking data, insights, and most importantly, research and engagement with you as the residents.”

“We will keep you updated on this important piece of work.”

The latest chapter in the story began in June with an announcement by local government minister Simon Clarke MP confirming that the Government is looking at creating more unitary authorities.

In July the leader of Surrey County Council, County Cllr Tim Oliver, wrote to the Government suggesting that the county council be asked to build a business for it to become the single local authority in the county.

In his letter County Cllr Oliver said that having both the county council and 11 borough and district councils was “too fragmented and complicated”.

“A single unitary council, underpinned with a flourishing new model of local accountability would be more effective, efficient and resilient in addressing the current challenges, better serving our residents and taxpayers,” he added.

In response, the leaders of the 11 districts and boroughs in the county also wrote to the Government, asking it to keep an open mind on proposals for how local government works in the county, and to consider alternative business cases to any that Surrey submits.

The letter from the Surrey Leaders’ Group said that while the Government has indicated unitary authorities should represent up to 500,000 people, Surrey has a population of 1.2 million.

A single unitary authority for Surrey “would be equivalent to only the larger of metropolitan areas but without the clear sense of locality recognisable to residents,” the letter said.

Reigate & Banstead councillors voted on 30 July to join other councils in supporting the work of the Surrey Leaders’ Group, including providing £30,000 of funding.   Leaders of all four political groupings in the council chamber expressed their support for the work.

In August, the Surrey Leaders’ Group launched its “Putting Residents First” campaign to engage with residents to develop proposals.

The group is reported to favour two or three unitary authorities within the county.  A three-unitary approach might see Reigate & Banstead join with Mole Valley, Epsom & Ewell and Tandridge to form an eastern area.

In recent weeks County Cllr Oliver, leader of Surrey County Council, has continued to lend his support to it becoming a single unitary authority.

Among the points he has made, he has said a single unitary could save £30 million a year, but that Surrey’s plans are just the “start of a conversation”, and that there might be more parish and town councils or local partnership boards.

Different layers of local government have different responsibilities in Surrey (image via RBBC) (Note: although Reigate & Banstead collects council tax, it only gets 12%: 75% goes to Surrey, 13% to the police)