District councils told to join forces – or face going bust
The days of rural district councils refusing to share services with neighbours "are numbered" as costs are squeezed out of local government, a minister has warned.
Brandon Lewis, Local Government Minister, signalled the troubles visited upon West Somerset District Council was a sign of things to come.
The authority, which serves 34,000 people, making it the smallest authority in the country, has been labelled financially "unviable" in a review by officials.
The Conservative-controlled council, which is facing budget reductions of £1 million over three years, voted last year to investigate becoming a "commissioning authority".
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Under such a scheme, it would remain a "sovereign" body with elected members but would outsource its services to other local authorities or organisations – only directly employing a small core staff.
In a briefing, Mr Lewis told the Western Morning News this could be a model for other cash-strapped small rural authorities.
He said: "I wouldn't get too fixated on whether it's done by unitary, county or four, five districts coming together.
"But, yes, district councils have got to look at different ways of working. They have got to look at getting that critical mass more cost-effectively.
"Having standalone silos of small councils with their own management team; those days are numbered if not already history, and they have got to start looking [at more efficient ways of working]. The money they have got should be spent on services and keeping council tax down for residents."
Districts in Devon have already gone some way to sharing "back office" services. West Devon and South Hams share a single chief executive, for example. Cornwall scrapped its six district councils when a super "unitary" authority was created in 2009.
But Mr Lewis appears to be suggesting going further.
He added: "If you look at a local authority and where is its sovereignty, its identity; it is the councillors. They are the democratically elected people that have to take the decisions. The officers are there to advise and implement. The councillors make the decisions. If you keep your democratic accountability and councillors elected locally your council is there."
Meanwhile, his department has published a list of councils that have indicated they will freeze council tax from April – which means they will get a Whitehall cash bonus worth a 1% rise.
They include Devon County Council, Somerset County Council and Teignbridge and East Devon district councils, as well as Avon and Somerset Police Authority.
By contrast, Cornwall Council has proposed a council tax rise of 1.97% this year, a £25 rise to about £1,268 annually.
Of the difference in approach between Devon County Council and Cornwall Council, which both go to the polls in May during a round of local elections, he said: "That's localism (but) I'd love to see Cornwall just look again and come back with a council tax freeze for their residents."