Unitary authority idea back on table

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A cash crisis could force Lincolnshire to scrap its county council and seven district councils and opt for one tier of local government.

Lincolnshire County Council leader Martin Hill (Con) wants the public to decide on county election day, May 4, when it is likely voters will be asked if they favour switching to a unitary authority.

The county council claims unitary governance could save up to £150million in the first five years.

Other than the principle, it’s not clear what residents will vote on – whether it would be one, two or more unitary authorities covering the area now served by Lincolnshire County Council.

Coun Hill, who represents Folkingham Rural, says we can no longer afford our current system, which he describes as “complicated, wasteful and no longer financially sustainable”.

Stamford and Bourne MP Nick Boles (Con) said: “I have always believed that having both district and county councils operating in the same area as parish and town councils wasted money and confused voters. Maybe it could be justified when there was lots of money to go round but now that local government services face painful cuts to get the deficit down such duplication is no longer acceptable.”

He said he supported the idea of a referendum on the issue as he was keen to hear residents views.

But South Holland and the Deepings MP John Hayes (Con) wants to stick with the status quo and seek more Government cash to fund essential services.He said he was ready to argue the case in Westminster for Lincolnshire to have more cash to keep its services running.

Labour county councillor Phil Dilks, who represents Deeping St James, claims “smoke and mirror Tories” propose a costly reorganisation – without revealing the true cost and without telling people that decisions affecting their lives could be taken further from home.

Coun Hill said he would welcome the backing of MPs to win extra funding.

“Last year, with the support of the MPs, we got an extra £7million but it wasn’t for every year,” said Coun Hill. “If we were able to get more money into the county that would be excellent.”

But Coun Hill now believes it would be better still if any extra cash were pumped into a more efficient system of unitary governance.

Does he favour one unitary authority to cover the area now served by Lincolnshire County Council?

“We are not really going down that road at all,” said Coun Hill. “I think the first decision is whether or not you want to go to a unitary system.

“Let’s talk about the principle first. There’s a possibility we could actually save money and be more efficient and, really, we ought to at least look at that idea – it would be a bit irresponsible not to even consider it.”

Coun Dilks said: “Only a few months ago, in the Greater Lincolnshire devolution referendum, we were told if we voted for an extra tier of local government and a Mayor for the whole of Greater Lincs we would save money.

“But the truth was it would have cost millions extra in bureaucracy – and was rightly rejected by residents.

“Now Coun Hill is pushing again for a unitary authority for the whole of Lincolnshire without saying how much it would cost and without admitting decisions which affect people’s lives would be taken even more remotely than now.”