One enormous council?

The leader of Surrey County Council, Tim Oliver, has written to the government saying the existing two-tier system should be replaced with one single council. With 1.2 million residents this would make it the largest unitary council in England. The Federation of Surrey Green Parties has issued a statement in response to the proposal, asking for public consultation and safeguards for effective local democracy and local decision making, alongside the desire for efficient administration.

You can read the statement here:

Federation of Surrey Green Parties

Statement on Surrey County Council’s proposal to establish a single unitary authority for Surrey

The Green party is committed to local democracy because we believe that decisions affecting our lives should be made at the most immediate level with the active involvement of those most concerned. The Federation of Surrey Green Parties was therefore very disappointed to see that the Leader of Surrey County Council has written to the Secretary of State, proposing a single unitary authority (UA) for the whole of Surrey with no resident consultation.

The SCC proposal is to create a single council for the county covering over 1.2m people, while scrapping Surrey’s borough and district councils. This would hand the unitary authority more extensive powers than those of Surrey County Council – for example, over housing and planning – taking decisions away from local communities. SCC Leader Tim Oliver has claimed local parish and town councils will be empowered, but has not provided any detail on this. Only four of the eleven Surrey District Councils are fully divided into parishes – indeed, four have no parish or town councils.

This proposed unitary authority would cover a population more than twice the size of the biggest unitary authority in England at present. We are concerned that such a bloated authority would weaken accountability, diminish local involvement and disempower our communities. Satisfaction with councillors improves with their nearness to the public, yet this plan would replace local representatives with fewer members more removed from the voters they should serve, each elected by around 10,000 voters – compared to around 2,500 who currently elect each councillor.

This drop in the number of councillors will also change the profile of our council, reflecting Surrey’s communities less accurately – for example, by making it even more difficult for those in employment or parents with childcare responsibilities to take on the role of councillor. With town and parish councillors potentially becoming little more than token positions on underfunded local councils, we believe this proposal represents a clear attack on local democracy and the ability of residents to choose how to run their own communities.

This is a fundamental change that will set the course for local government in Surrey for the foreseeable future, taking decision-making and vital services further from the public and introducing more disruptive change when we least need it. We therefore oppose the creation of such a potentially unwieldy and bureaucratic authority, remote from the people.

While opposed to the creation of a single unitary authority with no broad public consultation, the Green Party believe that the current structure, with services and responsibilities divided between two tiers, does not serve the public as well as it could. Provided they are scaled appropriately, and designed to encourage public engagement and participation in decision-making, UAs can offer a more integrated and responsive approach. Local Green Party groups will therefore support cross-party discussions on the creation of suitably sized UAs along with the extension of the powers and responsibilities of town and parish councils. We believe that any reform of local government instituted at this stage should be subject to the following necessary preconditions:

  • Any reformed structure should be based on a full consultation with all tiers of local government and local people.
  • The new structure should be designed to strengthen accountability, increase local involvement, and empower communities. Any proposed change should be supported by evidence that it will do this.
  • Any changes to local government in Surrey should be adequately funded by central government.
  • The creation of any unitary authorities within Surrey should be accompanied by;
    • the creation of an enhanced lower tier of community-based authorities (building upon town and parish councils where they currently exist and creating them where they don’t).
    • measures to extend genuine democratic participation by residents (for example, through the development of local citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries).
  • The election of members for any future unitary authorities in Surrey should properly reflect the wishes and views of the population through a system of proportional representation.

In order to be effective in delivering better services, the Green Party also believes that local authorities should be able to raise revenue through environmentally-beneficial measures such as local carbon taxes and workplace parking levies, and that each unitary authority should fully retain the business rate it collects.

Local government needs to be local, it needs to be connected to our communities, and it needs to be accountable to the people it serves, rather than remote and bureaucratic. The Federation of Surrey Green Parties looks forward to working together with Surrey residents and organisations towards a shared goal of more representative and participatory democracy.

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