John Marriott: A unitary authority – Is it time to ask the people?

Lincolnite readers should be well aware of my views on the need to reform local government structure in Lincolnshire by now.

Two years ago I set out in a column how this could be introduced around here. Then I was being fairly specific. This time I just want someone to find out what ‘the people of Lincolnshire’ really think.

Not long ago the county council decided to reject the devolution plans on offer from central government. Although I voted to accept them as a first, rather small, step towards giving back to local government some of the powers usurped by central governments of all political colours over many decades, I was fully aware of the flaws attached to the offer, mostly notably the bizarre concept of an elected Mayor.

I was clearly in a minority, that was prepared to bite the bullet – not unusual in my somewhat limited political career over the past 30 years.

However, what really got to me was the extremely questionable way that many of those who spoke and voted against the proposal in the council debate last October cited in their justification the consultation that had taken place across Greater Lincolnshire which, whilst not being against the idea of having fewer councils and fewer councillors, definitely rejected the idea of an elected Mayor, which was the sine qua non of the government’s offer.

Less than 1% of those ‘consulted’ bothered to reply, so to argue that “the people of Lincolnshire have spoken” is a bit like newly elected President Trump’s press spokesperson arguing that more people attended his master’s inauguration than did those of his predecessor, when the photographic evidence proved him wrong.

Now, IF we could reach a greater number of people to assess their views on the concept of reforming the structure of local government around here by affording them this opportunity when they vote in the county council elections in May, doesn’t this make a great deal of sense?

The only downside is the notoriously low turnout in local elections. However, I’m pretty certain that having a referendum on polling day would produce a far more representative result than last year’s consultation did and, provided that it’s legal, cost a great less money.

The problem with Councillor Martin Hill’s otherwise clever and eminently sensible proposal is that he has ‘previous’ when it comes to unitary authorities.

Like many on the county council he has in the past seemed to favour the creation of a SINGLE unitary authority out of the present set up of one county council and seven district councils, which would mean that most of us would have to deal with two councils instead of three as there is no intention of scrapping the parish and town councils, many of whom do an excellent job, are extremely cost effective, and could, with a change in legislation, be offered increased powers.

If it is made clear that the precise details of any change are not being considered here, that should get him and his ‘one unitary’ colleagues off the hook.

So, what should we be asking our residents without being accused of political opportunism? A simple question should be whether or not they are in favour of having one less council to deal with. If the answer is ‘Yes’, this would not mean necessarily one council to replace the county council throughout Lincolnshire.

We could end up with two or possibly three. We would certainly end up with less councillors less officers, less possible duplication and less confusion and could save a great deal of money – and, no, it wouldn’t go into the pockets of those councillors who remained (allowances currently account for a very minuscule amount of council spending in any case). It would certainly not be a vote for Councillor Hill as an elected mayor!

Armed with a positive result, the new county council could then undertake the difficult task of convincing its colleagues at district (some of whom are already on board) to join it in approaching central government for permission to do the hard work necessary to make unitary local government around here a reality.