SURREY County Council fired the first shot in a battle for survival with Surrey’s borough and district authorities this week – with plans afoot for the biggest local government shake-up since 1974.
If approved, Surrey would represent the largest unitary authority in the UK, serving a population of around 1.2 million people. The current largest unitary is Cornwall, serving 565,968.
And it could happen soon – with the government said to be preparing a White Paper on devolution and local government reorganisation, due in September, and strong rumours circulating that Surrey is considering cancelling the county elections next May to pave the way for the changes.
Most areas of Surrey are currently served by three tiers of government; at town/parish level (Farnham Town Council), borough/district (Waverley Borough Council), and county (Surrey).
The unitary system would give the towns and parishes more responsibilities, but combine the functions of the county (education, highways, social care) and those of borough or district councils (planning, social housing, recycling and refuse collection).
It is hoped this approach could deliver major savings at a time when all councils are under great financial pressure – as set out by Mr Oliver in an article on Page 4 of this week’s Herald.
But the Surrey leader’s proposal has already met fierce criticism in Waverley, with the 46-year-old borough council suddenly facing oblivion.
In another article on Page 5 of this week’s Herald, John Ward, Waverley Borough Council’s Farnham Residents leader, has slammed Mr Oliver’s plans as a “blatant power grab”, instead floating his own counter-proposal.
This suggests scrapping Surrey in favour of three or four smaller unitary authorities in the county – signalling a potential link-up between Waverley, Guildford and Mole Valley councils, and perhaps even a Hampshire or West Sussex authority.
Surrey County Council’s Labour group has also rejected the idea of Surrey becoming a “mega council”, endorsing a three-council approach – but with Waverley forming a ‘Surrey Hills Council’ with Guildford and Woking.
Also on Page 5, Mr Ward’s Conservative predecessor as Waverley leader, Julia Potts, has warned Mr Oliver’s plan risks a loss of local representation.