Report of the Leader of the Council
See attached letter from the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government
Members considered a letter from the RH Robert Jenrick MP, Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), in relation to the Government’s Levelling Up agenda regarding local government reorganisation.
The Chair advised Members that Bolsover District Council was probably the first Council in Derbyshire to debate the contents of the letter and that a representative from the BBC was present to film the debate.
The letter from the Robert Jenrick, followed on from the Prime Minister’s speech of 15th July 2021, regarding the government’s intention to widen devolution beyond cities to counties, towns and villages, as they had promised in their pre-election manifesto.
The letter explained that the government did not want to or could not deliver full devolution alone and wanted to work with local government. The Leader noted that in effect, the government was leaving it to local politicians to come to some arrangement. The letter also stated that “not one size fits all, and no authority would be forced to wear a model that was ill fitting”.
The Leader noted that the government’s proposals for combined authorities was not new. Members had discussed ‘Vision Derbyshire’ with Derbyshire County Council last year and had decided not to be involved. Derbyshire County Council had now written to Robert Jenrick asking to be considered for inclusion in early discussions about county deals.
‘Vision Bolsover’ was the Council’s attempt to shape the future but this depended on the decisions Members made today, either locally or nationally. The Leader stated that Members may consider that what the Council wanted to achieve could only be possible by being part of a bigger authority, and Members may be right but there would be a price to pay and the Leader had asked Senior Management Team to analyse the pros and cons.
The Leader stated that Bolsover District Council wanted to help shape the future. However, it would not help shape the future if it constantly waited for someone else to make the decision for it. At the end of this debate there would hopefully be a clear idea of what Members’ stance was on local government reform. The BBC was filming out of particular interest and Politics Today also had a particular interest in what Bolsover was doing. Times may be difficult in some urban areas but the Leader felt that rationalising staff numbers would not overcome the difficulties and a faceless bureaucracy would not provide an efficient service to the tax payer - and that is what it was about - the people that Members represented.
The Leader added that the debate on local government reform would also be communicated to residents via the Council’s In Touch magazine where they would be given an opportunity to comment in writing or via the Council’s website.
Councillor Duncan McGregor thanked the Leader for his words and his rallying call for Members to be proactive and take the initiative in shaping the future of Bolsover and its constituents. Like the Leader, he also remembered previous calls for amalgamation of councils and the demand for greater efficiencies, and being told that bigger was better, and with absolute certainty, he had never experienced this to be the case. This was backed up by evidence across the country where the anticipated benefits had failed to materialise.
Councillor McGregor stated that the Council maintaining its democratic accountability, its direct connectedness to its communities, its ability to represent the people it lived with, was critical to a healthy and sustainable social economic and political future.
If county councils imposing unitary authorities achieved what they were asking for, they would have an average population almost 5 times larger than the current average size of all English councils. With a national average of 3,300 voters per councillor, England was already substantially less locally represented than other major western countries. District councils and local town and parish councils continued to offer the most direct representation between their electorate and their representatives with an average of 2,000 voters per councillor - county councils by contrast had 9,000 voters per councillor on average.
Councillor McGregor stated that the issue of local government reform today was not a failure of local government but a failure of support of local government over years to provide sufficient funding and autonomy to enable local government to flourish and energise the economic recovery of local communities.
Local district and parish councils were the bedrock of how local communities would build a new more prosperous future for its communities. It was Members that understood best their local community, their needs, their opportunities, and could build on its strengths. This had been clearly demonstrated as the Council had worked in collaboration across its partners to support its communities through the Covid pandemic. It was the Council that developed collaboration where it was needed - across employers, community and the third sector, and health and care organisations, to enable its community to find the resilience to weather the more severe impact on lives and livelihoods. The Council could have done more had it been better supported from central government to do so and not been stymied by years of underinvestment.
Councillor McGregor urged Members to listen closely to their conscience as they debated the future of Bolsover District Council on the call for a unitary council for Derbyshire. He implored Members to consider whether they really believed in their heart of hearts that the people of Bolsover District would be better served, would be given a brighter future under different County arrangements. Or did Members think that they, who understood their local communities so intimately, could achieve more by continuing to work in the spirit of collaboration and partnership to get on with the job they had been elected to do, especially as the Council had faced the consequences of the Covid pandemic - Councillor McGregor emphatically suggested that they could.
Councillor McGregor further stated that Members should not allow themselves to be distracted by yet another vocacious debate on reorganisation. The Council had the Vision Bolsover plan, and he urged Members to proceed with it and deliver.
The Executive Director of Strategy and Development spoke about the potential structures that could be put in place across Derbyshire with agreement. The government’s proposals for reform for the way in which services were delivered across the country, could result in no change at all but it could be about creating a single county or a regional council located in one of the major cities – depending on the size, it could be Derby, Nottingham, or even as far afield as Leicester.
The county of Derbyshire, including Derby City, was a very diverse area, which saw districts, villages, towns and a city, which had very different needs, different economic prosperities and different challenges. From the rural Peak District in the west and the heavily populated city in the south and the towns and villages of the former mining communities in the north and the east.
The type of local authority structure adopted would have an impact on the access and accountability the electorate would have, so generally, the more accessible politicians were, the easier to hold them to account, have dialogue with them and be more likely they would understand the needs of their constituents. There was plenty of evidence to suggest this - the larger the authority, the more remote and less connected people were.
The needs of the rural communities were different to a city region or a larger metropolitan area - this was because of the size and concentration of the people, and the wider range of services that they provided. It would therefore make sense to ensure that whatever local government model was put in place, it had the right balance between being small enough to be accountable and accessible, and large enough to benefit from economy of scale, and that the type and make-up of population across the area was similar so it should be urban focused or rural focused.
There were three types of local authority structure; the 2 tier model, which was a district who was the lower tier, and the county council which was the upper tier – as was the current structure for the Bolsover and DCC, presently. Services such as housing, refuse collection, grounds maintenance and economic development were delivered by the District Council, and highways, adult social care and education was delivered by the County Council.
The advantages of a 2 tier model was that services were delivered at a local level and there was a better understanding of the needs of the area - it also had the advantage of being accountable and accessible ensuring people had more of a voice. Countywide functions such as transport were dealt with under one organisation giving them the ability to take a holistic view of cross boundary impacts, which was important. The disadvantages were that residents may not always understand which council provided which service, and economies of scale may not always be realised.
The 1 tier model, or the unitary authority, was where all services were delivered by one authority and this would likely to be a countywide organisation which would probably include Derby City. All functions currently undertaken by the District and County Council and Derby City would be delivered from one administrative centre with potentially local hubs.
The advantage of a unitary authority was uniformed services delivered across the former district areas - there was a wider tax base and only one set of decision makers and amalgamation of services was likely to reduce costs and increase resilience. The disadvantages were a reduction in accountability and the organisation would be less accessible. There would be a reduction in the number of elected members. A quick reckoning was that the average number of members in a unitary authority was 61, the average number of members in a district council was 43, and the average number of members in a county council was 61 – this nearly mirrored the county of Derbyshire. This meant that there would likely be a reduction in members equal to the number of members representing all the districts across Derbyshire.
Regional Council was likely to be more than 1 unitary authority with a recognisable single identity. For example, this could mirror D2N2 LEP area where you could have 4 unitary authorities, Derby and Derbyshire and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, or more likely, Derby and Derbyshire become one unitary and Nottingham and Nottinghamshire another, or if it got wider into Leicestershire, it could become a combined mayoral region. The advantages were similar to the unitary authority model but in a larger scale. These were a few examples of models that could be introduced with many variations between two tier and regional councils.
It was believed that Derby City had already put in a proposal to government about forming a south Derbyshire unitary authority and had recently met with Derbyshire local authorities to discuss the proposal. The Leader had outlined earlier that there was evidence to suggest that a full scale skirmish was brewing in Derbyshire for the county council preferred option of Vision Derbyshire. It was unclear how Derbyshire County Council saw the end governance structure of how this would be set up but at the very least, it would have a governance structure made up of participating council members, with officers working directly for them, or, it may end up being a unitary authority forced on them given the actions of Derby City, or it could just be that they wanted to implement the ‘case for change’ document, which relied on bringing forward efficiencies through scale but relied on redundancies, so they were planning to spend £48m on exit costs, which would equate to around 1,500 people being made redundant across Derbyshire.
Again, it would make sense to ensure that whatever local government model was put in place, it had the right balance between being small enough to be accountable and accessible and large enough to benefit from economies of scale, and that the type and make-up of the population that it served was similar, either urban or rural focused.
The Head of Paid Service clarified what was known so far. Other than the letter from Robert Jenrick MP, a webinar question and answer session had taken place on 27th July 2021, with senior council officers and leaders which provided a little more information.
At the webinar, the Ministry was clear that it would not impose any top down government solutions, and reorganisation was not a requirement for a county deal.
There was an acceptance that deals could be done within 2 tier areas as well as unitary, and areas with a combination of the two. There was not a single specified structure or governance model for county deals – the need for consensus would depend on the model and the detail being presented. County deals would build on the government’s work at a local level in towns’ high streets and on local infrastructure – they would be based around the local identity and operate on a geography that did not isolate neighbouring areas and prevent them from accessing devolution opportunities.
The nature of a governance structure would also depend on the nature of the deal and the types of powers and flexibilities provided within that deal. There was an expectation that different county deals would have different governance models, powers and funding, to maintain a flexible approach and recognise local need. The government definitely emphasised that it would not be a one size fits all approach.
There was an expectation of improvement in governance, efficiencies and joined up services, and strong leadership would be fundamental along with effective local scrutiny to help residents know who was accountable for decision making in their area.
The government wanted feedback on the types of powers and flexibilities that councils would like to see that would unlock delivery of outcomes rather than further requests for funding, and places with the clearest most innovative and readily deliverable proposals that supported levelling up would be prioritised.
It was expected that most county deal discussions would take place following the publication of the levelling up white paper in the autumn. Several questions had been asked at the webinar around a date for the white paper and the Ministry had made it very clear that it would be the autumn but would not give any further definite date. They had a lot of proposals to go through and were currently having discussions and the Ministry were already talking to some areas about their proposals.
Areas that wished to take part in early discussions had been asked to get in touch with ministers prior to 13th August 2021. The Council was aware that DCC had done that – they had submitted an interest as a priority area and meetings were starting to take place. The government was open to considering early proposals from a few councils if they already had well advanced plans but would need to have significant support in place.
The white paper was expected to set out links to wider government strategies including the spending review and the vision to build back better following the pandemic. Locally led changes including district council merges may be considered but only if they improved local government in the area, if they had local support and were supported by all councils concerned, they had a credible geography of 2 or more existing local government areas that were adjacent, and would not pose an obstacle to locally led joint working. A credible geography could potentially be in the region of 300,000 to 6000,000 population, or potentially have regard for local circumstances, identity and economies of scale.
The Head of Finance & Resources stated that as Members were aware, every autumn revised budgets were updated for the current year based on the latest information within the Council, and this was brought to Members for approval in December.
The Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP), was also updated for future years and for this, the financial settlement from the government was needed. This was called the Spending Review (SR) and it informed the Council how much government funding it would receive, what level the council tax could be set at and the multipliers to allow the Council to charge business rates. This was the most important information because there was nothing the Council could do to change it. As an unprotected service, quite often, local government had to make do with what funding was left.
Since 2004, the government had cut funding to local authorities year on year. There had been annual efficiency savings, the Gershon report on councils making efficiency gains without cutting services, the government’s policy of austerity in the 2007 Spending Review which continued today.
After managing to meet the Gershon efficiency targets, new ways to close the funding gap were needed, so the Council formed a Strategic Alliance with North East Derbyshire District Council in 2011, and the Council had made savings of £4.779m.
However, although savings could be made by sharing management and other service costs, it had become apparent that even slight differences in the ambition of the councils’ could mean the workload of joint staff become unmanageable and this had resulted in a loss of capacity at both councils as they both tried to make progress in similar services at the same time.
With regard to the 2021 autumn Spending Review, the Public Accounts Committee had published a report that looked at the effect of Covid19 on local government finance as well as the prospects for reform of local government funding.
Counties in particular were facing huge deficits in social care. Many districts were predicting to be in difficulty when reforms were implemented due to shifting business rate growth elsewhere and the equalisation of council tax doing the same based on the latest known information. The estimate of the Council’s deficit was £3.2m for 2024/25.
There were potential savings from the government’s levelling up proposals of unitary authorities where county and district services were carried out in one - some joining up of back-office functions due to economies of scale in finance, payroll, ICT, legal etc., but there was likely to be large redundancy costs, such as mentioned in the Price Waterhouse Cooper’s document, ‘Case for Change’, which proposed making approximately 1500 jobs redundant. Savings in Members’ allowances was likely as only one set of Members was present in this model.
The Regional Council’s model was similar to the one tier model but likely to be much larger with the same implications, although in the Head of Finance & Resource’s opinion, the number of redundancies was likely to be drastically higher.
Whichever model was used, it was felt by the APSE Local Government Commission, that the current system of local government funding was not sustainable. Recommendations made by the Commission included a settlement that would ensure every council had sufficient resources to exercise its roles and responsibilities and meet the needs of its communities. If this type of settlement were to be provided, the Head of Finance & Resource’s wondered if the Council would be discussing Local Government Reform at all.
The Monitoring Officer noted that as outlined in the Queen’s speech, the government’s parliamentary timetable for legislation was full and it did not include local government reorganisation. There were also some other high profile matters in relation to the Housing white paper, which were missing from the timetable and this demonstrated pressure on parliamentary time. Without something in the timetable the government was reliant on existing legislation which required agreement from all local authorities involved to any reorganisation or devolution proposal before there could be change – so local government reform cannot be imposed. Looking for this agreement is what Robert Jenrick’s letter was about as well as trying to promote proposals for agreed change.
Councillor David Dixon queried the types of discussions and responses the Leader had had from other councils in the area. The Leader replied that discussions had started almost 2 years ago with Derbyshire County Council’s Vision Derbyshire where officers had decided that councils would have to contribute at least £50k each, plus officer time to set up a super structure to look at implementing it. The Executive Director of Strategy and Development added that one other district council had signed up in principal to Vision Derbyshire in relation to the governance structure and investing £50k, two other authorities would be taking it through their approval process in the coming few weeks, two more authorities were not interested in taking it any further and two other authorities were not indicating what they were intending to do.
Councillor Andrew Joesbury welcomed the debate and hoped Bolsover would lead the way for the rest of Derbyshire. He wanted the Council to stay as it was. Councillors were at the heart of their communities and the people they represented needed direct communication with them, not someone who was unfamiliar with the area and deciding what was right for a local community. He added that the Council had done a lot of good work in the District that needed to be left alone.
Councillor Stan Fox read out a statement on behalf of Councillor Mary Dooley. The statement concluded with Councillor Dooley urging Members to say no to the government’s reform of local councils. Councillor Fox added that he supported Councillor Dooley’s statement.
Councillor Deborah Watson stated that as an Independent Councillor and with no party political agenda, she failed to see how good representation of people in rural areas could be achieved by a unitary authority that was remote, and by councillors who did not truly understand the needs of each local area. The Council had worked hard to continue to provide the services it needed throughout all the cuts imposed on it over the years by the government and throughout the pandemic. She suggested it would be better to remove the County level of authority as it had very few services left that it did not outsource and very few schools it controlled as they rapidly became academies. Councillor Watson felt that the District Council would be best placed to deliver these County services and the County was already renting office space at the Arc to deliver some services it needed to deliver in the locality. The Council had proved efficiencies could be made and provided jobs for local people which protected the environment as well as boosting the local authority.
Councillor Sandra Peake queried the future of parish and town councils as they currently received great support from the District Council. The Leader noted that unlike district councils, parish and town councils did not need government authority to set up, neither did they receive any government funding. The Monitoring Officer added that it was district councils’ electoral services which helped set up the process of parish and town councils but she had not seen anything from the government to say what would happen to them one way or the other in the future.
Councillor Liz Smyth spoke about small businesses in the District and the crisis of the pandemic where the Council had stepped up to the plate. During the crisis, £26m of business grants had been paid out to local businesses by the Council via the Economic Development team and Revenues and Benefits team, who had done an amazing job. The process had become quite complicated at one point but these had been dealt with by real staff talking to businesses on the phone and taking them through the process step by step. A lot of businesses were saved and jobs were safeguarded. Councillor Smyth felt that it would be politically naïve to take away that valuable tier of local government. She agreed with Councillor Watson’s comments about removing the County level of authority and that the District could take on some of their work.
Councillor Andrew Joesbury also agreed with Councillor Watson’s comments and noted the number of services which had been cut by the County Council including youth services. He felt that the District Council carried out a far better job delivering services.
Councillor Nick Clarke spoke about the centralisation of the police service in the early 2000s, the reduction of the numbers of police due to efficiency cuts and the loss of local knowledge and he felt that the same would happen if the District Council’s services were lost to a unitary authority.
Councillor Anne Clarke supported Councillor Clarke’s comments and added that she had also witnessed loss of local knowledge in her previous career as a nurse. She added that it was the people at grass roots level that had the knowledge to deliver services well.
The Chair noted that North Yorkshire County Council had proposals to become a rural unitary authority. Derbyshire by contrast, approaching Manchester, was a mix of urban, rural, industrial and ex mining and this was repeated across Derbyshire east, south and west, which made it a nonsense to be any type of single authority.
The Chair thanked Members who had raised the point of the Council’s local accountability which was absolutely crucial and key. He also supported Members’ comments regarding Derbyshire County Council.
The Leader reaffirmed his earlier comment that if the issue of local government reform turned into a full scale skirmish amongst councils, it would take the publics’ eye off what was really happening in central government. A solution was needed and the Leader felt that this was that the Council stayed as it was. He added that local authorities should be telling government to fund council’s properly for the services and functions it was elected to do.
Councillor Duncan McGregor thanked Members’ for a good discussion on the issue of local government reform and stated that Bolsover District Council was a good council who had resolved its own financial ways and means of being able to progress and provide services to local residents which was Members’ sole purpose. He emphasised that services would be affected if local government reform went ahead and reaffirmed that the Council would be consulting its residents via the In Touch magazine and also the Council’s website.
It was moved by Councillor Duncan McGregor and seconded by Councillor Sandra Peake that Bolsover District Council supported the continuation of two tier government in Derbyshire and urged other Derbyshire councils to do the same, and also that the Leader of the Council be empowered to explore other alternatives if necessary.
In accordance with Council Procedure Rule 14.4, of the Council’s Constitution, Councillors Duncan McGregor, Steve Fritchley and Councillor Sandra Peake requested that a recorded vote be taken on the motion.
Before the vote was taken, Councillor Natalie Hoy declared her position as a cabinet Member at Derbyshire County Council.
For the motion (29) - Councillors Derek Adams, Allan Bailey, Rose Bowler,
Dexter Bullock, Tracey Cannon, Anne Clarke, Nick Clarke, Jim Clifton, Tricia Clough, David Dixon, Maxine Dixon, David Downes, Stan Fox, Steve Fritchley, Donna Hales, Ray Heffer, Andrew Joesbury, Chris Kane, Tom Munro, Duncan McGregor, Evonne Parkin, Graham Parkin, Sandra Peake, Peter Roberts, Liz Smyth, Janet Tait, Rita Turner, Deborah Watson and Jenny Wilson.
Against the motion (0)
Abstention (1) Councillor Natalie Hoy
RESOLVED that –
(1) Bolsover District Council supported the continuation of two tier government in Derbyshire and urged other Derbyshire councils to do the same,
(2) the Leader of the Council be empowered to explore other alternatives if necessary.
(Leader of the Council)