Reform of councils posed by Lord Heseltine

Report author Michael Heseltine - photo by Mike Baker
Report author Michael Heseltine - photo by Mike Baker

The leader of West Sussex County Council has said district and county authorities already drive down costs by working closely after former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine called for them to be abolished in favour of unitary authorities.

In his 230-page Government report called No Stone Unturned Lord Heseltine outlined 89 recommendations to kick start the economy by reforming local government, business, education and Whitehall.

Among them is to put more power into councillors’ hands. He says the system of English local government is ‘overly complex, inefficient’ and ‘not suited to the demands of the 21st century’.

He argues the multi-tiered nature of the English system makes it difficult to exploit economic opportunities and calls for the Government to combine all two tier authorities so that all services currently divided between county and district councils would be provided by one council.

He says unitary authorities such as Brighton and Hove run at considerably lower cost and provide ‘greater clarity and accountability about where responsibilities lie’.

But county council leader Louise Goldsmith said significant work has already been done to drive out inefficiency.

She said: “We must wait and see what the Government decides but I firmly believe that local partnerships and local leadership also have a key role to play in creating growth and jobs. That’s vital for West Sussex given the grant changes that will see local government finance more closely linked in future to the success of the economy with councils being allowed to retain more of the share of business rates.

“Unitary authorities would be an issue for government, but I have to say that in West Sussex there is a very sound working relationship between county and our district and borough councils. For example, we have a project called ‘Better Together’ that is designed to eliminate duplication and drive down costs.

“We are also working closely with them on a possible pooling arrangement when the business rate changes comes into force because this has the potential to reduce a proposed Government levy and enable more funds to stay locally for the benefit of our residents.”

Lord Heseltine also said Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) should be given more funding to develop strategic plans for the regions, but Mrs Goldsmith said as well as playing a leading role in the Coast to Capital LEP WSCC has also invested in a number of programmes to kick start the economy. These include ensuring West Sussex has superfast broadband in the South Downs investigating improving bottleneck junctions on the A27, which affects businesses and commuters alike. Horsham District Council declined to comment on Lord Heseltine’s report.