Your excellent coverage and leader on the future of local government in West Sussex (May 21 and 28) deserve some considered response from your readership, particularly on the issue of greater decentralisation of powers.
The leader of West Sussex County Council advocates devolution of “powers and freedoms” to shire counties as well as to the northern pilot ‘city regions’, and argues that a bid for the South East region should be led by a cohort of four county councils working in tandem.
Councillor Goldsmith is less enthusiastic about using unitary authorities as building blocks in this process.
But far from being an exercise in “moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic”, as she puts it, the creation of single-tier unitary authorities removes a layer of local governance and integrates a range of services (such as social care, housing and health) in a more focussed and accountable manner based on geographic areas to which people more easily relate in their daily lives.
The bid envisaged by West Sussex would create a coterie of county authorities operating at a sprawling sub-regional level, far removed from the influence of the public in town and country.
The leaders of Crawley and Mid Sussex Councils are right to be wary of the West Sussex proposal: Horsham and Worthing certainly ought to be.
City region devolution provides the opportunity to utilise the building blocks of existing unitary authorities who are already working in tandem (as in London and, shortly, greater Manchester), using an identifiable hub and radiating out the benefits of economic growth and infrastructure development.
But the principle underpinning the model is not confined to purely metropolitan areas: it will work equally well where unitary authorities are individually created around a smaller urban hub which has a natural relationship with its rural hinterland.
And by working in partnership the combination of several such unitaries can deliver more than the sum of its parts – whether that be in primary and secondary health care, or in more integrated and responsive public transport systems – closer to the people it serves and without creating a distant sub-regional tier.
As you rightly say in your ‘Times Comment’ on May 21 “one council for the [West Sussex] county might feel too remote and removed for residents in each area”: it certainly would, given the linear geography dictated by the coast, the downs and the Weald.
Counties are too large in population terms, and yet districts with limited remit lack critical mass.
West Sussex could well function with three unitary councils, using the optimum population size per authority (c0.25 million), and replacing some eight existing bodies.
Sharing of back office functions is only a start.
In the medium to longer term, savings would be achieved and service delivery would be better co-ordinated.
Health commissioning and social care, for example, could be properly joined up, with pooled budgets.
Ultimately this is for Chancellor Osborne and Communities Secretary Clark to grapple with if they want to propagate the ‘powerhouse’ solution in a meaningful way south of The Wash.
County councils should not close their minds to reorganisation when the three-tier arrangement is no longer fit for purpose, and when the sharing of a measure of central power could reinvigorate English local government.
The downside, of course, is that Whitehall will only share power (which inevitably comes laden with substantial responsibilities) where it can retain the purse strings.
Fiscal devolution is a myth.
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