Exclusive: Vale unitary bid could be lodged within weeks

AVDC leader Neil Blake PNL-140414-161421001
AVDC leader Neil Blake PNL-140414-161421001

Talks with the government aimed at securing a unitary authority for Aylesbury Vale could begin in a matter of just weeks, according to a council boss.

Neil Blake, leader of Aylesbury Vale District Council, wants a single Vale authority responsible for all services, rather than the two-tier struture that currently exists with Bucks County Council.

He said: “It could be weeks before we speak to a senior government minister and say this is the general feeling.”

Bucks County Council is against AVDC’s proposals, arguing that a county-wide authority would make more sense, while other district councils in Bucks appear to be content with the status quo.

AVDC chief executive Andrew Grant said they want to be part of a ‘mature debate’ on potential unitary models in Bucks and arrive at a consensus.

However, he warned that the Treasury has already intervened in Hampshire.

The more advanced unitary negotiations in Oxfordshire (in which David Cameron is supporting the four district councils there becoming unitary authorities) and Northamptonshire could also force the hands of reluctant Bucks-based councils, as could another dip in the economy, he added.

District chiefs set out why dividing the county into North (ie, Aylesbury Vale) and South unitary authorities was the best solution for taxpayers.

Mr Grant said: “Aylesbury Vale is the fourth largest district in the country and Wycombe is the fifth so Bucks is blessed with very big districts.

“We have a population of 182,000 now, which was the size of Milton Keynes when it went unitary. We will be at 250,000 within a heartbeat [due to housing growth].”

Mr Blake added that the commercial approach take by AVDC could help improve services currently run by the county: “If we were given the option of going into [services currently provided by Bucks County Council] and seeing exactly how they are running I believe we could do things to make them much more efficient and not have to bleat to government that we haven’t got enough money to live.”

He said a Vale unitary could contract out services to other authorities: “You find a partner who is great at providing the service, we don’t have to take everything on.”

AVDC is already in discussions with unitary councils in the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) about creating a wider combined authority sharing resources.

Janet Blake, cabinet member for business transformation, said: “We would still be able to be democratic and accountable in the area we are in even though we’d be working with other authorities to achieve economies of scale.”

A previously unseen report by consultants LG Futures commissioned by AVDC to look into a business case for splitting Bucks into two unitary authorities said it ‘meets the qualification criteria that the government is likely to set’.

It said the model could reduce the cost of services by 25% and pay back its set-up cost within two years.

It added: “A compelling business case can be built around Aylesbury Vale’s economic development and housing growth over the next 20 years. A unitary authority is better placed to manage these changes and maximise their benefits. Furthermore the additional tax receipts from both council tax and business rates will make an Aylesbury Vale unitary authority business case significantly more financially beneficial than any other structure within the county.”

Mrs Blake said: “We shared this report with other district leaders in the county but found there was no appetite to progress discussions. As a councillor for both the county and the Vale, I truly believe that having two unitaries in Bucks is the way forward. Whatever the outcome, I’d urge leaders to start talking.

“Our wonderful Vale is very different from the rest of the county – we’re predominantly rural but with current housing needs will grow our population to around 250,000 over the next 20 years. We need councillors that are democratically accountable for providing all services for this area. It’s not just about value for money it’s also very much about localism.”

The Bucks Herald and Buckingham and Winslow Advertiser has launched a campaign calling for local politicians to seriously consider going unitary to save money but we remain neutral on how this is carried out. It comes after outgoing Bucks County Council chief Chris Williams slammed our inefficient and confusing two-tier structure and said a Bucks-wide unitary should have been created in 2007.

Mr Grant said: “I agree with Chris Williams, the status quo is not an option. There is a lot to celebrate in what he has said. What we don’t celebrate is people saying we should stay the same. Local government is broken. Let’s have a fair debate. If the people have spoken, and say lets have a single unitary in Bucks, I don’t see how that would work, but the people would have spoken.”

Mrs Blake added: “There’s no doubt that our residents and communities are not getting the best deal under the current two tier system, where county and district councils deliver different services. It’s not cost effective and lends itself to duplication and confusion.”