Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Wednesday, 1 April 2009 01:02 UK

England gets 'supersized' councils

By John Andrew
BBC Local government correspondent

Bin lorry
The new unitary councils will be responsible for all council services

There is an old joke in local government that structural reform will always end in tiers. But in this case it is wrong.

This morning 3.2m more people woke up to a single tier - their services all provided by one council and not the two-tier structure where services are divided between district and county councils. (Districts, for instance, collected the rubbish and counties disposed of it.)

The changes are significant, they amount to the biggest shift in council services in a single day since the big reforms of the 1970's.

WHY THE CHANGE?

In UK terms, England is the odd one out - the only part of the Kingdom not to have a wholly unitary system. The Banham reforms under the last Conservative government set the pace for more single-tier councils. Labour have followed on but instead of setting up a commission invited councils to come up with their own unitary solutions.

They have avoided some of the ugly warfare we saw between districts and counties in the 1990's as both battled for survival. But these reforms have not been without their rancour. In Cheshire, for instance, the late and redoubtable MP Gwyneth Dunwoody fought hard against splitting the county into two unitaries, but lost.

Ministers like unitary councils because they end the public's who-does-what confusion and offer the chance of big savings. Three hundred senior posts have been lost in these reforms. In Northumberland, for instance, you now only need one chief executive, not seven.

Together with the kind of economies of scale possible in big authorities it is reckoned the new councils will deliver savings of over £100m to be spent on services or used to keep council tax rises down.

IS THERE A DOWNSIDE?

These reforms do come at a democratic price. In all the areas affected, the same populations will be served by far fewer councillors. In Northumberland, for instance, a county served by more than 300 district and county councillors now has only 67 for the whole shire. The biggest challenge for these new "super councils" is to prove that they can be as local as the old system.

WILL I NOTICE A DIFFERENCE?

Many of the old district council offices will still be used but re-branded with the new council's name. Some of the new authorities are setting up area boards to take decisions as close as possible to the areas they affect.

The new Cornwall Council is providing 22 one-stop shops and walk-in centres across the county. Durham, like most others, is allowing people to ring a single number to access all services. It is also doubling the number of homes in the county which get a recycling service after replacing eight different contracts with a single one. Some of the new councils also have plans to install broadband in every home.

WHAT ABOUT AREAS STILL UNDER THE TWO-TIER SYSTEM?

The latest changes mean that 60% of England's population is now served by unitary local government. The odds are that remaining two-tier areas - like most of Kent and Lancashire, for instance - could well come under pressure to go down the same route. But at the moment there are no firm plans for further reform.



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SEE ALSO
Go-ahead for unitary master plan
05 Oct 08 |  England
Bid to speed up unitary hearing
30 May 07 |  Shropshire

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