Below are our responses to questions we have been asked by councillors, clerks and residents.
For a guide to our plans to enhance local decision-making and access to services, see the Community Proposals Explained page
Making the decision
What does government think about the business case?
In March 2018 the Government announced it was minded to support the proposal for a single, county-wide unitary council in Buckinghamshire.
The statement from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, said: ‘I am satisfied that this new single council, if established, is likely to improve local government and service delivery in the county, generating savings, increasing financial resilience, facilitating a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges, and sustaining good local services. I am also satisfied that across Buckinghamshire as a whole there is a good deal of local support for this new council, and that the area of the council represents a credible geography.
“Whereas, I am equally satisfied that establishing two councils for the current county area is unlikely to improve local government in the area, generate significant savings, or provide the capacity to sustain major services or to address planning and housing challenges. I believe the areas of the two councils would not represent a credible geography or clear local identity, and that there is significantly less local support for two councils than for a single council. Accordingly, I am not minded to proceed with the proposal for establishing two councils.”
How can I comment on the minded-to decision?
There is now a period until 25 May 2018 during which those interested may make further representations to the Secretary of State, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Will there be a referendum?
There is no intention to have a referendum – this would cost at least £500,000 and our view, which is echoed by Department for Communities and Local Government, is that it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
What are the downsides to the proposal?
The initial cost and the period of change.
How can we trust the business case; you’ve written it yourselves?
We are confident that the business case is thorough and robust as it has been developed from the findings of our options appraisal. We have employed Grant Thornton to independently check and verify the options appraisal and they have approved its contents as being accurate and realistic.
Why should the county council be trusted with the current district council services?
This is not about county council or district council services, but providing a simpler customer journey across all local government services, and saving resources which can be used to support current services.
The proposal is for an entirely new council to be created from the best of the five current councils; one new set of councillors would be elected, so it would not be a case of the current County Council taking over the districts.
Community Boards and Hubs
How will the community boards work?
The boards would have executive powers to make decisions and decide budgets. So they would be a statutory committee of the new council. We know these boards work really well in Wiltshire, where decisions are taken by consensus. £2million of the savings would be distributed through the community boards, which would be encouraged to use them to lever for match funding. Boards would be decision–making bodies rather than delivery agents.
Aren’t you just proposing to continue the current Local Area Forums (LAFs)?
No, the community boards would cover different boundaries and would be decision-making bodies as a statutory committee of the new council.
Delivery agents locally would be a community hub in each area, and town and parish councils taking on the level of service they feel most appropriate. These would provide a local access point to services.
Will parish and town councillors have a vote on Community Boards?
No. The Community Boards will have executive powers and so it will only be Councillors from the new authority who can vote. However, following Wiltshire’s model, it is anticipated that all decisions will be made by consensus of all those taking part, including town and parish councillors.
We are going to lose the individual contacts we have at the district councils who know our area?
The new council would provide 19 local hubs with officer presence. Planning would work in five regional teams, and the community boards would ensure that all services were locally accessible. The new council would also provide a single point of contact for parishes interacting with the unitary council.
Where will the community hubs be? Can the parish council provide one?
The business case does not identify the 19 locations, and the new council would certainly want to work with town and parish councils where this was possible.
Would a single unitary invalidate the districts’ area plans?
No, although it may be preferable to join them together over time.
What will happen to our Local Plan; will this be a wasted effort with a new unitary council? Will we have to engage in the process again unnecessarily?
The three local plans will be newly adopted at the launch of a new council and will therefore not change for the immediate future. Once the plans come up for review in 2022/2023 the new council could choose to develop a single local development and infrastructure plan for Buckinghamshire.
What will happen to our Neighbourhood Plan, will these be recognised by the new council?
It is envisaged that a new council would encourage the development of Neighbourhood Plans, in accordance with the local plans as these provide a powerful way of communities to shape a shared vision for their neighbourhood and direct the right types of development for their community.
How will planning work?
There will be five planning committees. Planning decisions need to be taken by a formal committee in accordance with the law, comprising of the elected councillors for Buckinghamshire Council. Area Planning Committees would therefore enable local councillors to take planning decisions.
Will town and parish councillors have a seat or representative on the Planning Committees?
No. This would not be possible within current legislation. The Business Case says, “The majority of planning application decisions would be made by Area Planning Committees, with members of Buckinghamshire Council from within the area.” (Page 53)
Are you trying to devolve planning decisions to town and parish councils?
No, it is not proposed to do this. The majority of feedback from town and parish councillors was that they would prefer not to make planning decisions directly, given the challenges around making sometimes unpopular decisions so locally.
Aren’t you trying to increase double taxation by devolving more services?
No. Where the council would otherwise deliver these services directly, the appropriate budget would also be devolved.
Would the new council provide budgets for more devolved services?
Yes. Where the council would otherwise deliver the devolved services directly, the appropriate budget would also be devolved.
Won’t you end up with parish and town councils becoming the old district council without knowledge, resources or finance to cope?
Town and parish councils will be offered to take on a range of services which some will take up and some will not. Some parish and town councils will be ready to take on more services with less support; for those who would like more support, a programme of support/resources will be provided.
We’ve experienced problems with devolution in the past with both the county and district councils. Why should we believe it will be different?
Change will be challenging but look at the long term. For example, Cornwall has devolved car parks and public toilets successfully. This is a good time for town and parish councils to develop and clarify their ask of a new unitary.
Isn’t this double devolution?
Where the new council wanted to devolve services the budget would also be devolved; devolution offers would be cost neutral to the business plan and so are not a way of making savings. Where the council offered to transfer assets, it would be for the town or parish council to work through their business case for taking these on.
What about insurance and devolution?
This would be decided by the new council; insurance has been modest for councils who have taken on devolved services so far.
Would there be support from the new council for parishes who wanted to cluster?
Yes, there will be support and this will be delivered through Parish Futures.
Will town or parish councils be able to take on buildings for community benefit that would otherwise be sold?
Potentially. This would be decided on a case by case basis.
How many councillors will there be?
Ninety-eight. This is down from 236 across the five councils, saving £1.2million.
Ninety-eight is still at the high end of members per population compared to other areas. Birmingham have just agreed 100 members for a population of 1million. Over time, the new council could consider reducing the number of councillors.
Will they still be paid the same allowances rate?
That will be for the new council to decide.
How many people will each councillor represent?
On average, about 5,000, but will vary from division to division.
Why haven’t the county and district councils worked together on this?
We asked the Districts in May 2016 to collaborate with us but they declined and worked on their own proposal. We have shared data with them.
What are the districts proposing that’s different?
Their proposals are available at https://www.modernisingbucks.org/
What does Buckinghamshire County Council think about the district councils’ proposals?
We welcome the consensus that the status quo is not a viable long-term option. We believe that the business case we have submitted would be the right outcome for the people, businesses and other public sector partners in Buckinghamshire, but we do respect the fact that there are other options which the District Councils favour. We have produced an at-a-glance comparison between the proposals.
How much did you spend on writing the business case?
The business case was produced in-house by Buckinghamshire County Council staff. However, we recognised the benefits of an independent organisation scrutinising the findings of our Options Appraisal, which assesses various models of modernising local government and concludes that a new, single county-wide council offers the best solution for residents and businesses. This work – which confirmed our findings are accurate and realistic – together with external support on our financial modelling, cost a total of £25,135.
How much will all the change cost?
Transition costs of £16.2m would be funded from council reserves and would be repaid within three years, resulting in a return on investment of £45m in net revenue savings over the first five years of the new council.
How can you be sure that the financial savings quoted in the business case are realistic?
The County Council carried out an options appraisal which examined various options for a unitary council, including a single unitary, two unitaries, three unitaries and three unitaries as a combined authority. Both the financial and non-financial benefits were examined. The findings from the options appraisal were that the financial savings derived would be greatest from a single unitary council; these findings were independently verified by Grant Thornton as accurate and realistic.
The annual saving of £18.2m doesn’t seem to add up to the 5 year cumulative savings figure of £45.4m, taking account of the 16.2m setup cost?
The £18.2m annual savings will not be fully achievable until year 3; see page 74 of the business case for the annual saving and cost over the first 5 years.
What will happen to the current reserves held by district councils?
This would be for a new council to decide; the new council could decide to ensure each district’s reserves are held to provide services in that area.
What will happen to council tax in our district?
See page 71 of the business case. The budgets set by the county and the majority of the district councils have assumed the maximum increase in council tax over the next four years.
Whilst a new Buckinghamshire Council may have an ambition to be able to freeze or even lower council tax in the longer term, it would be critical to get the new council onto a sustainable footing before being able to consider this. The financial model therefore assumes an increase of 2% for the social care precept up to 2021 and an increase of 1.99% within the council tax referendum limit in each of the current districts. This would mean a reduction for three of the districts, and a modest rise for Wycombe.
The cost to achieve this is reflected in the net revenue savings of £45m over the first 5 years of the new Council. It would however be for the new Council to agree the level of Council Tax.
How will business rates be affected?
Arrangements for the retention of business rates are currently under review and are uncertain beyond 2020. It is probable that the Buckinghamshire authorities will see reductions in both New Homes Bonus and the level of income from business rates. These changes will occur during a period when districts’ financial resources are already assumed to decline in the core spending power. Under a single county-wide unitary authority the fall in core spending power would only be approximately 2.0%, which would significantly mitigate the potential risk to frontline services. (page 68)
Why can’t you just all work together more, like South Bucks and Chiltern have?
The level of savings proposed could never be achieved by a gradual or partial solution; the business case proposes a radical and wholesale change to local government.
Have you considered having a mayor, like Bedford?
This isn’t one of the options that has been fully assessed; a mayor would add cost, and is not something that any of our research with residents and stakeholders has brought up as a preferred solution.
What has been learnt from the implementation of Milton Keynes unitary council?
Learning and knowledge has been taken on board from a number of unitary councils, both locally and across the country.
How have other unitaries gone in recent years?
We have included feedback and examples from a number of successful unitaries in the business case, including Durham, Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire. This website includes case studies on Durham and Wiltshire.
The change process
Where would the headquarters be?
This would be decided by the new council.
What would happen to current contracts like TfB?
They would initially transfer to the new organisation, but all are scheduled for recommissioning at some point.
How will you avoid a loss of experienced and valued staff members, during the periods before and after the set up?
By providing as short a set up period as possible, and involving all staff in the change process. In terms of potential redundancies, the business case is not primarily based on staff reductions, so the number of eventual redundancies is anticipated to be small.