Kent transport

Should Kent County Council be dismantled and unitary authorities introduced to cut costs?

There is a ritual that takes place every year when local councils set their budgets, which involves the councils pretending they need more money and the government pretending they don’t have any.

And even if they need more financing, they should find it from their savings.

The public sector is facing new challenges caused by the cost of living crisis. Archival photo

As for who is right and who is wrong, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But these are exceptional times for the public sector in general, as it recovers from the impact of the Covid pandemic and faces new challenges caused by the cost of living crisis.

Municipal ratepayers who have recently had quite staggering bills for the coming year might justifiably be baffled by reports that seem to suggest that budgets established only a few months ago are already creaking under the pressure caused by the crisis in the cost of life.

Councils collectively have a funding shortfall of £1.7billion and many are being forced to tear up the budgets they agreed to accommodate new pressures, including those caused by soaring inflation, according to a survey. and spiraling energy costs.

The obvious question is, why didn’t they foresee these tensions and stresses?

Municipal taxpayers may be confused by reports suggesting that municipal budgets drawn up a few months ago are creaking under the pressure caused by the crisis.  Archival photo
Municipal taxpayers may be confused by reports suggesting that municipal budgets drawn up a few months ago are creaking under the pressure caused by the crisis. Archival photo

The answer is that many did but did not expect them to be so high. Many authorities have built inflation increases into their contracts with the private sector. The problem is that many did this year, but at an expected high of 3%, not 9%.

Take for example the extra fuel costs on garbage collection. Ashford Council has set its waste collection budget set to rise by 4.3% – £3.98m – in 2022-23 but is now expected to rise by 12.9% – creating pressure budget of £385,000.

Meanwhile, Kent County Council has identified a series of pressure points caused by rising energy costs.

These include a planned £435,000 rise in electricity bills for its own offices and buildings, and £667,000 for its streetlights.

Road and transport costs represent an estimated £4.1 million increase in contractor fees.

Energy costs are rising for KCC's electricity bills for its own offices and buildings as well as for public lighting.  Archival photo
Energy costs are rising for KCC’s electricity bills for its own offices and buildings as well as for public lighting. Archival photo

It’s not exactly the kind of currency you find on the back of the sofa.

As for the solution, it’s tricky: the options are to give the councils another bailout – or let them settle on their own.

Of course, there is a way for municipalities to reduce their costs and meet the growing demand for services.

It would be a rather drastic solution and one which periodically comes into the spotlight: dismantling Kent County Council and establishing unitary authorities consisting of perhaps three or four councils.

The idea was pushed back onto the agenda by the Tory leader of Maidstone Council, Councilor David Burton, who in very blunt terms said the current system is not working to the benefit of the people that the tips serve.

Councilor David Burton said the current system is not working to the benefit of the citizens the councils serve.  File photo Peter Cooper
Councilor David Burton said the current system is not working to the benefit of the citizens the councils serve. File photo Peter Cooper

Describing it as silly, he says there is no common thinking, residents are confused and the reorganization would cut costs – by having fewer chief executives.

These arguments have been had before of course. The reason they’re not getting any traction is that local councilors may be naturally reluctant to get fired.

When a plan was drawn up by four East Kent councils to merge, create one super district council – not a unitary one – it fell apart for precisely that reason. Turks don’t vote for Christmas.

A similar idea was put forward by county councils two years ago, with one crucial difference: the county council would operate as a ‘super-unitary’ – and there would be no second-tier councils at all.

Removing Kent’s 13 smaller councils and merging them into a larger unitary authority could deliver significant savings, a report says.

The County Councils Network (CCN) dossier concluded that a single unitary authority in each of the remaining 25 dual-tier areas – such as Kent – could save around £3billion over the next five years in a “compelling” financial case for counsel.

So compelling that the idea went nowhere.

Removing Kent's 13 smaller councils and merging them into a larger unitary authority could deliver significant savings, a report says.  Archival photo
Removing Kent’s 13 smaller councils and merging them into a larger unitary authority could deliver significant savings, a report says. Archival photo

After much dithering, the Labor Party has finally paved the way for the party to select candidates to contest the upcoming general election in key seats.

Among them is Dover, where it looks like a two-way battle between former soldier Mike Tapp and Charlotte Cornell, who fought the siege in 2019.

Although it is a seat held by Labor – during the Blair years – it is not as marginal as it once was; Natalie Elphicke, incumbent, has a sizable majority of 12,278 votes.