There has been a bit of discussion about whether West Sussex county council and the various district and borough councils should be replaced with a unitary authority. The current round of debate started when the UKIP group on the county council raised the matter and the Lib Dems decided to support it. While I agree that multiple tiers of local government can be confusing and inefficient, I really don’t think this is a good idea.A unitary authority does remove all the hassle of having to work out and remember who does what, and all the tricky little overlaps and demarcation issues. Grass verges is always a good one: you can have one council responsible for the verge and the grass cutting, but the other council actually cuts it under contract from the first one and any question the public has about frequency or quality can get batted between the two forever.
This is often given as the benefit of having the same person elected at both county and borough level, though personally I have always had a problem with that because you can’t exactly get a second opinion if one person is wearing all the hats.
So in theory there are some benefits to having a UA, especially the economies of scale and efficiencies or only having one set of councillors and one set of directors, one HR department, one finance department. What I am less sure about it that it is appropriate for a large county, and I am positive that it would be very bad news for Crawley.
At the moment it is UKIP and the Lib Dems (strange bedfellows indeed) calling for this. In Crawley we have never elected a UKIP person to anything and it must be ten years since we elected a Lib Dem person to anything. If West Sussex was put in charge of anything then UKIP and the Lib Dems would have a say in what happens here despite the tiny probability of there being a councillor here from either party. How would that be good for us?
Also, you can bet that such an organisation would be based down on the coast again, and Crawley would continue to get ripped off while being neglected.
From a much more partisan and tribal perspective it is even worse. Labour controlled the local council for a long time and have a good chance of controlling it again. With a county-wide authority the best we can hope for is to be a fairly small opposition party. When I moved here I think Labour had 7 out of the 9 county councillors in Crawley – but they were only part of an 8-strong Labour group on the county council (or maybe 9) out of over 70 councillors so had little or no impact on any strategic matters.
Presumably any proposed West Sussex council would not be elected under PR so it would end up the same as the current county council where the Tories used to have a huge majority while getting well under half the votes in the county. I’m actually surprised they don’t support the idea, especially as councillors in unitary authorities tend to get quite large allowances, reflecting the fact that it is virtually a full-time job.
It might be OK for large towns and cities and for London boroughs, but I’m can’t see how a unitary authority for West Sussex would be any good for anybody North of Ashington.
Turning Crawley into a unitary authority on its own? Or Richard Symonds’ pipe dream of a Gatwick City unitary authority? Now that is something that might work, but I can’t imagine that UKIP or the Lib Dems would fancy that. It would make a change for voters in Crawley to be able to elect people to the authority responsible for education who would actually be able to do something about it?