John Chilver: “Time to stop that sinking feeling every Christmas…”

For the last few years, I’ve approached December with a sense of real trepidation.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the festive season, far from it – rather, it is of course the time of year when the local government settlement is announced.

All thoughts of merriment are put on hold as we begin the painful process of working out how on earth we pay for vital services which are experiencing rapidly increasingly demand, all with a fast-depleting pot of money.

Here’s the reality. In 2010 Buckinghamshire County Council and our colleagues from the four district councils received £88m in government funding – by 2020 that figure will be zero.

Like local authorities up and down the country, we’ve become far leaner and efficient, reviewed non-essential services and focused on commercial opportunities to generate income.

But it’s not enough.

If we are to provide our residents with the services they deserve, rather than salami-slice them every year, then we need to confront the elephant in Buckinghamshire’s room.

And that is the two-tier County and District model. I struggle to imagine a more inefficient way to organise local government. It’s unacceptable that millions of pounds are wasted by its duplication and bureaucracy every year.

That is why we have submitted a business case to government to abolish both the county council and the districts, and replace them with an entirely new unitary authority.

Our calculations – which have been independently verified – show a new council would save local tax payers at least £18m per year.

For example, around £4m would be saved by combining the back-office functions of the five councils, such as HR and finance. £3.6m would be saved by running services more efficiently on a larger scale, with greater economies of scale. £3m would be saved by cutting the numbers of senior managers which previously existed across the five councils.

The new Buckinghamshire Council could earn at least £48m in capital receipts from the sale of surplus properties. It would also enjoy greater buying power from combining resources.

But creating one new council would even improve services without spending a penny more on them.

That’s because services which are currently divided between the county and districts – but which naturally complement each other – can be brought together and planned for in a much more coherent, strategic manner.

And it’s not just the big ticket items, such as housing and infrastructure and bins and waste disposal that would benefit – having one council instead of five would free up resources across the board.

For example, Baroness Scott, the leader of Wiltshire Council, recently told us how a Safeguarding manager had approached her soon after they went unitary in 2009, and thanked her for pushing through the changes.

She asked why – surely the move hadn’t really affected her department?

But the manager replied that her team had been released from having to deal with five different authorities, allowing them to focus on what they do best – protecting vulnerable children.

Cutting bureaucracy, freeing up vast amounts of officer time and saving serious sums of money would allow local services to get on the sound financial footing our residents deserve – and even stop that sinking feeling every time Christmas approaches…

This article was first published in The MJ, November 3, 2016.

John Chilver is the Cabinet Member for Resources at Buckinghamshire County Council.

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