Plans for an east Kent super-district, Britain’s largest, appear to have been scuppered after Shepway councillors last night voted against the four-way merger with Canterbury, Dover and Thanet.
While two councils – Dover and Thanet – wanted to get the ball rolling with a public consultation, Canterbury decided not to even vote on the matter.
In a statement on Shepway’s website, council leader David Monk said: “Our decision means that none of the councils involved can proceed.
“We will need time to consider what implications that has for how we deliver services. Without any grant from central government, significant savings will still be required.”
Two of these were the restricted nature of the proposed public consultation and the new super-district’s inherent democratic deficit.
Not only would the new merged authority be remote from the communities it served by virtue of its size, but also by its skeleton staff of elected representatives.
The business case suggested the merged authority would have between 70 and 100 fewer councillors, making it little more than a smaller version of Kent County Council.
But, according to Ian Driver, the biggest obstacle is the enormous debt, thought to exceed £1bn, that the four councils – three of them Tory-controlled – were bringing to the party.
A prudently-accumulated £1bn, that is…
£1bn probably comes as a surprise to those who swallow the Tory line on their efficiency and financial prudence. Though it probably simply reflects the relentless squeeze on councils led by the Conservatives in government since 2010.
However, even without the debts, there are doubts that the new council could deliver the necessary savings to compensate for the government’s unrealistic cost-cutting obsession.
Add to this the risk of a £20m compensation award against Thanet District Council, being pursued by the former owners of Margate’s Dreamland amusement park, and the merger business case looks decidedly shaky.
As for the way forward, Driver is clear: “The proposed super-council was a badly conceived, hastily put together, undemocratic, dog’s breakfast of plan which deserves to be booted out.
“I support radical local government reorganisation in east Kent. I firmly believe Kent County Council should be abolished and its powers devolved to a series of new unitary councils based on mergers of no more than three district councils.”
In itself, all quite sensible. However, the fly in that particular ointment is the dogged unreality surrounding local government finance – and, especially, the Conservatives’ obsession with a narrowly-defined efficiency agenda.
Something for nothing
In keeping with their approach to the public sector as a whole, the Conservatives are constantly out to extract something for nothing from local council services. But as the ongoing social care funding fiasco clearly illustrates, this is not a viable long-term strategy.
After seven years of savage cuts, the government seems to be wilfully missing the point. If we really want functional, vibrant local democracy – and we’ve not been asked a straight question to say otherwise – then we have to pay for it.
Without a funding strategy that doesn’t presume that everything can be bought at below cost, the government is just leading everyone on a dance with empty words, musical chairs and crumbling services.