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Unity in a unitary: What needs to change for unitary authorities to work in the Surrey?


As we approach the end of the 11th week of lockdown, we at Cratus want to take a minute to stop thinking about what the world of local government may look like in the immediate aftermath of Covid-19 and instead have a think about what it could look like in three or four years’ time. 

By now we have all accepted that the move towards unitary authorities is becoming a more relevant conversation for councillors in the South East. Funding shortfalls, disjointed service provision and government pressure to cut costs seem to be pushing things in one direction.  

Does it make sense to push for unitary authorities to be formed? The government is certainly attracted to the predicted £58 million costs savings at the new Buckinghamshire Authority. So what is stopping places like Surrey from replicating the success of Medway and Brighton & Hove?

As many of our clients and friends in the world of local government and development will know Surrey is not exactly a place known for its quiet acceptance of the norm. Its residents and representatives don’t shy away from fighting their corner  and it is clear just from looking at the way that each authority has adapted to accept new housing requirements that there is not a single unified way of thinking in the county. 

But how can you achieve a sense of unity when the needs and requirements of residents in Spelthorne are so different to those living in Guildford or Waverley? The answer is strong political leadership and a clear vision of how councillors can work together to ensure that power and responsibility is spread evenly amongst each authority. There is an argument that now is a time more than any for council leaders to come together, regardless of ideology or party colours and work cohesively to figure out what unitary status could mean for Surrey.  

One of the primary areas that will need to be addressed before a unitary (or several) is formed is development and Local Plans. There is no doubt that trying to protect against what some perceive to be overdevelopment has benefited councillors at the ballot box. However, this thinking has led some authorities to continuously lose housing appeals – and costs- while risking their planning powers. If a unitary is to work, there must be a strong leadership in place to guide Surrey through the teething stages of gaining unitary status to avoid a continuation of the same approach. Such leadership will need to ensure that there is no uneven balance when it comes to development. It cannot be the case that Spelthorne or Epsom and Ewell take all of the large development. It must be shared evenly, after proper consideration of all constraints, in order to maintain a sense of balance that will allow Surrey to grow sustainably while maintaining its unique character. 

It will also be key to form an executive which adequately represents each area so that a sense of shared responsibility is created. No area should feel left out of the decision making process. The face of local politics in Surrey has changed in past few years and any new unitary authority executive will now need to include a range of voices all with different agendas. There will be a need to include Residents Association leaders that could want to focus on providing the best outcome to an individual area alongside new Liberal Democrat leaders whose priority is to focus on pushing Surrey towards Zero Carbon Emissions targets. This will be a challenge for any administration but will be one that will ensure that this new face of local politics is not weighed down by the same political point scoring that we have often seen dominate the headlines in Surrey.   

It is unlikely that the conversation about the need for unitary authorities in Surrey is going away anytime soon. There is clearly pressure being put on decision makers in the county to look into how it would work. However, there is also significant resistance. This is a very complicated debate and it is one that we will undoubtably be returning to in the near future. Watch this space.