Stevenage and North Herts leaders launch pre-emptive strike against dissolving councils

Hitchin Oughton councillor Martin Stears-Handscomb, who leads the Labour group on North Herts Distri

Hitchin Oughton councillor Martin Stears-Handscomb, who leads the Labour group on North Herts District Council. Picture: NHDC - Credit: Archant

Leaders of Hertfordshire district and borough councils – including Stevenage and North Herts – are gearing up to oppose any moves to create a unitary authority.

A unitary authority would mean services – such as planning, environmental health, bin collection, housing and licensing – provided by our boroughs and district would now be done by Hertfordshire County Council.

In a statement – issued on Friday evening (July 17) – the leaders of all 10 district and borough councils said they have “joined forces” to oppose a “county council proposal” to establish a single unitary council.

Labour and Co-operative Leader of North Herts District Council, Martin Stears-Handscomb, said: “Leaders of all the district and boroughs in Hertfordshire, whether they are Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative are united in this.

“We want to continue to work with the county council as we do in so many ways, but this damaging proposal will waste valuable time when we should be focusing all our efforts on protecting our residents and helping our businesses to recover.”

Cllr Stears-Handscomb added his voice, along with Stevenage leader Cllr Sharon Taylor, to say: “Across the county, we all want to see local government working as effectively as possible and that will continue to be at the heart of our discussions as we look to the future.

“The leaders are opposed to the proposal for a single unitary council to serve Hertfordshire’s residents, as it would be too large and remote to support local communities and residents, and around three times larger than the size that government are likely to consider suitable for local areas.

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The statement – backed by leaders from all three political parties – highlights the ‘lifeline’ the district and borough councils had provided to residents during the Covid-19 pandemic.

And it suggests the local knowledge and services had been vital in supporting local residents.

It also explains the effective way that councils had worked with the county council through the Hertfordshire Growth Board – as well as the innovative way they had protected services and saved £95m from council budgets over the past 10 years.

And it questions the ‘poor’ timing of the proposal – suggesting that absolute focus was now needed to support the recovery from the devastating effects of Covid-19.

Commenting on the way they will collaborate on an alternative proposal, the statement says: “The leaders will now work together along with other key partners and will take account of the views of residents to help inform the development of alternative options for consideration by government alongside the county council’s single unitary council proposal.

“This will be done with the aim of ensuring that any future model for local government in Hertfordshire is both effective and efficient whilst also providing proper representation for residents.

“It is not helpful to speculate at this stage about what that might look like as it requires a great deal of work to be done to identify the right solution.”

But not all areas across the country operate this ‘two tier’ council system – with some areas having all services administered by a single ‘unitary’ council.

And recently local government minister Simon Clarke MP has signalled a wish for more elected mayors and more unitary authorities.

No plans to change the structure of local government in Hertfordshire have yet been put forward formally or suggested publicly.

But – following the comments made by the minister – the county council has already said it will need to explore “how we best organise ourselves”.

In response to the comments made by the minister about a move towards more mayors and more unitary authorities, a spokesperson for the county council has already said: “Hertfordshire County Council values the importance of strong working relationships and collaboration across the whole public sector in Hertfordshire.

“The environment in which all councils find themselves we recover from the pandemic, requires us to explore how we best organise ourselves to continue to meet the needs of our residents and provide the most effective support for the county’s economic recovery.

“We are just at the start of those considerations and look forward to working with all councils in Hertfordshire to determine our best way forward.”