A plan by Conservative-controlled Hertfordshire County Council to abolish the county’s 10 district councils will demolish local democracy and create a super authority where other parties are wiped out, has been described as ‘gerrymandering’ by Labour in Hertfordshire.
In a letter written by David Williams, Conservative leader of Hertfordshire County Council, to Boris Johnson and leaked to the Guardian, it appears that the plan is nothing more than an attempt to shore up the ‘red wall.’ Williams told Johnson not to “ignore the political implications [of reform] for both Conservative councillors and MPs … and in particular our new red wall MPs.”
Williams continued: “It is no surprise to me that many of those celebrating reports of delays are Labour and Liberal Democrat district councillors who regard the prospect of strong county based unitaries as threats to their strongholds.”
Cllr Sharon Taylor, Labour leader of Stevenage and the County Council’s portfolio holder for the modernisation of local government, told Hertsmere Labour members: “Williams had commissioned a secret Price Waterhouse Cooper report last November to provide what they described as an ‘options appraisal’. In effect this was always intended to make a clear case for a single unitary council for Hertfordshire, abolishing all of the county’s 10 district councils and transferring their responsibilities, funding and powers to a county-wide unitary. Their report was delivered in February.”
The plan first surfaced in July when the county’s district councils veremently opposed the idea when Williams started to make public and press statements about his support for a single unitary. His role as the Chairman of the national County Councils’ Network gave him an ideal platform.
The district councils’ statement said they did not agree with the proposal, stating that it was the wrong time for major disruption of local government, which should be focused on recovery not reorganisation. They also said that a single unitary council would create the biggest local authority in the country, covering 1.2 million people: A size equivalent to that of Northern Ireland and Estonia, both of which are governed by autonomous parliaments as well as local government.
The local authorities were also concerned that the detail of the calculations in the secret PWC report had not been subject to proper scrutiny or assessment, nor had any consultation had been carried out with councils or the public.
A result of the proposal would require a tier of parish and town councils to be developed in the 51% of Hertfordshire that currently does not have that tier of government, such as Bushey and Potters Bar.
As a result of this, the district councils have commissioned a report from Grant Thornton to consider the possible alternative options for local government in Hertfordshire which are seen as:
• No change
• Enhanced joint working between Districts and county council
• A single unitary council
• Two unitary councils
• Three unitary councils
• Four unitary councils
Work has also been commissioned to consult with stakeholders and Hertfordshire people to find out their views on the proposals.
Hertsmere Labour Group Leader, Jeremy Newmark, added: “Right now, the priority for local government in this area needs to be delivering economic recovery, funding social care and protecting the wellbeing of those hit by the pandemic. David William’s dubious dossier, produced at taxpayers expense, is a transparent exercise in empire building and political power-grabbing. I’m pleased it has been recognised as such and rejected by the leaders of the 10 district councils.
The Government is expected to published their delayed White Paper on ‘Devolution and local recovery’ this autumn.