Herts county leader points to political implications of unitary delay in leaked letter to PM

Hertfordshire County Counci leader Cllr David Williams and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Pe

Hertfordshire County Counci leader Cllr David Williams and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Pete Stevens/Official Portrait Ben Shread, Crown Copywright - Credit: Archant

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been urged to push ahead with reforms to local government – amid fears the expected white paper may be delayed – by Hertfordshire County Council leader David Williams.

Councillor Williams also suggests opposition to new unitary authorities may be politically motivated – as well as highlighting the political implications that the reform agenda could have for Conservative councillors and MPs across the country.

The letter to the PM – written on County Council Network note paper – was sent in Cllr Williams’ capacity as leader of the Conservative Group of the CCN.

In the private letter, Cllr Williams tells Mr Johnson the white paper is a “real opportunity to deliver your government’s vision to drive economic growth and level up the country”.

He says a move towards unitary authorities – and away from the “wasteful two-tier system” – would save £3bn over the next five years.

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And he suggests unitaries are better able to provide strategic leadership, build more homes, act as champions of economic growth and deliver better public services – and would also “breathe life in to local democracy”. Meanwhile he also says they are a ‘prerequisite’ to establish combined authorities or devolution deals.

Speaking on behalf of the Conservative Group on the CCN, he says members are “concerned” by recent suggestions that the white paper may be delayed.

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He says this would “set back economic recovery and local growth prospects up and down the country” and “represent a failure to capitalise on what is a clear opportunity for reform”.

Hertfordshire County Council has already commissioned its own exploratory work that suggests that replacing it and the 10 district and borough councils with a single unitary authority could save up to £140 million a year.

But the controversial move has been opposed by leaders of all 10 district and borough councils, made up Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour, who have vowed to oppose a move to a single unitary authority in the county.

In the letter, Cllr Williams also points to the political implications of a delay to the government’s ‘reform agenda’ – particularly for the so-called “Red Wall MPs”.

He says: “It is no surprise to me that many of those celebrating reports of delays to the Devolution White Paper are Labour and Liberal Democrat district councillors, who regarded the prospect of strong, county-based unitaries as threats to their strongholds.”

In support of the reform agenda, he also dismisses a link that has been drawn between the number of Conservative district councillors and the party’s chances of returning a Conservative MP.

He concludes: “We now have a once in a generation opportunity to put in place effective, efficient and sustainable units of local government which can think and act strategically and, alongside empowered town and parish councils, also be genuinely local and rooted in the identity of England’s great counties. I trust that you share our vision, as we certainly share yours, and that the government will put in place measures to make this a reality.”

Liberal Democrat group leader for Welwyn Hatfield Cllr Malcolm Cowan has previously pointed out that given the large area Herts covers – which is dominated by mainly Conservative councillors – “on every issue, we would be outvoted by councillors from elsewhere”.

Cllr Cowan added: “It is telling that the statement was signed by leaders from all three political parties; such unanimity indicates what a poor idea this is. Any potential change must be clearly written down and given plenty of time to be discussed. This is clearly just the whim of a few councillors determined to steamroller something through.”

A result of the proposal would also require a tier of parish and town councils to be developed in the 51 per cent of Hertfordshire that currently does not have that tier of government, such as Bushey, WGC, Hitchin, Letchworth, St Albans and Potters Bar.

The County Council Network – which is a cross-party organisation – has already distanced itself from the letter.

In response, a statement from the CCN said: “CCN is a cross-party organisation, which includes political groups.

“The letter was sent in Cllr Williams’ capacity as the leader of the Conservative group at the CCN – as clearly stated in the first line of the letter.”

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