County-wide unitary authorities 'could save £2.9bn'

CREATING 27 county-wide unitary authorities could save £2.9bn nationally and would generate savings faster than other options for local government reorganisation, according to new research.

The study by EY for the County Councils Network found that the unitary model would save, on average, up to £106m per county.

It said that delivering services at scale, under clear governance and within coterminous boundaries with key partners, would benefit the integration of health and social care, economic growth, transport, crime and improve the sustainability of services.

It would also provide the "most effective platform" for reducing council tax, it added.

The single unitary option would potentially save 68 per cent more than a second scenario of abolishing county and district councils to create two unitary authorities per county, which would result in 54 new councils across the country.

A third option of replacing counties and districts with three unitaries per county would create 81 new councils and could result in a net cost for the average county of between £1m and £14m over five years, the report said. This option, which would see the three unitaries supported by a combined authority, has been proposed in areas such as Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. But the study warned it is an "untried and untested" model.

Darra Singh, partner and head of government and public sector at EY, said: "Our findings from this strategic review aim to provide an evidence base, as well as a wider narrative to inform the debates around county areas. This discussion will be increasingly important given the growing demand for services, funding reductions, devolution and structural reform debates, as well as uncertainty of future funding arrangements for local authorities.

"Most importantly, this report looks beyond a narrow focus of savings from structural reorganisation. It places emphasis on the transformational and service redesign opportunities which can come from considering different governance scenarios and the imperative for wider public service reform."

CCN chair Cllr Paul Carter said: "CCN is neither for nor against reorganisation and commissioned this research in an era of anything goes, as seen in competing proposals across several parts of the country.

"As revealed in the study, each option has its own merits and its own challenges. This body of work will feed into the debate as to the most efficient and effective manner to deliver complex local government services in this country. This research and evidence base should form an important reference point should central Government have an appetite for the reorganisation of local government.

"But a clear conclusion from the report is that there are real risks in splitting up the historic counties of England, in terms of both savings and maintaining good public services. Instead, the evidence strongly suggests the most effective means of structural reform - whether through unitary or two tier models - are those that build on the scale and geography of county councils."