When I retire as County Council Chief Executive this week, I will be very sad to leave because I love my job here so much.
But, if the truth be told, I should have gone in 2007 when other areas including Wiltshire, Cornwall and Shropshire, abolished their county and district councils in favour of just one unitary council each.
At the time, I recommended similar plans for Buckinghamshire, scrapping the five existing county and district councils (which would have included my own job) and replacing them with one new council for the whole of Buckinghamshire. However, at the eleventh hour, councillors decided not to back the plans, and we missed out.
And yes, I am as convinced now as I was then when I made my recommendations to councillors that there should be a wholesale shake-up of local government in Buckinghamshire. What we have learnt is that, providing they are of sufficient size, unitary councils work brilliantly.
Not only do they save millions of pounds and reduce duplication of services, but they also end the understandable confusion among the public about who is responsible for what. For example, where is the sense in district councils collecting rubbish from your front door and then the County Council disposing of it?
The two-tier system of local government made sense in 1974 when it was introduced, and even back then it replaced the equivalent of 15 existing councils down to the five we have today. But more than 40 years on, the two-tier system has become outdated, not fit for purpose and far too expensive to run.
But, don’t just take my word for it – look at the money that has been saved by others as a result of going down this path. Wiltshire, for example saved £50m in the first four years and back office costs were reduced to 9% of the total budget from 19% previously. Closer to home, the recent Buckinghamshire Business First group estimates taxpayers would benefit to the tune of £20m per year if we went unitary in Buckinghamshire.
Even though I failed to get backing to submit a unitary bid in 2007, we became a government sanctioned ‘Pathfinder’ to improve the two-tier working between the county and district councils. Sadly, three years’ work and £2.5m of public money later, it collapsed in acrimony with absolutely nothing achieved.
To my mind, it was a serious error not to press for a unitary council. I personally would have been prepared to lose my job and reapply for another one in the brave new world of an entirely new local authority. Hopefully, I would have succeeded and been able to keep my new post until my retirement, but even if I hadn’t, it still would have been worth it for the benefits it would have brought to the county.
These may sound hollow words but I promise you I am deadly serious and some of you may remember how I have previously spoken out in public about the millions we would save with a single new council for the whole of Buckinghamshire. Why keep paying for five councils and all those extra running costs, when you don’t need to.
Instead, I had no choice but to carry on as before and tried to effect changes behind the scenes to pave the way for the inevitable shake-up. Therefore, it’s to my considerable chagrin, that the multitude of councils still exist in their archaic format, despite all the campaigning and despite the fact that the loss of Government grant means we have a huge task on our hands to balance our books while continuing to provide all of the services we do. My idea is still to amalgamate the two levels of councils into one main authority, covering the whole of Buckinghamshire, complemented by much more powerful parish councils which are closer to the people. It’s a simple, but effective solution.
As I said earlier, it’s not only about money. The duplication that exists as a result of having five councils is quite ridiculous, and it’s sometimes hard for the experts – let alone the public – to know who’s meant to do what. In short, I am proud of what I achieved as Chief Executive at the County Council, but not proud of the fact that – despite all the efforts – I am leaving with the prehistoric multi-tiered local government system still intact.