Zöe Franklin calls on Michael Gove to act to stop 'County Deal' which is simply unitarisation via the back door
Last week a 'new' proposal was leaked to the Guildford Dragon that set out Conservative-run Surrey County Council's proposal for a new 'County Deal'. Reading the articleI was dismayed by the blatant attempt to push forward a deal that paves the way for the unitarisation of Surrey via the back door.
It is clear to me that Surrey's Conservative leader Tim Oliver and his county councillors have learnt nothing from last year when he made the original failed bid to have one single monster unitary authority for the whole of Surrey. This bid cost Surrey taxpayers £250,000, were widely heralded as inappropriate for Surrey and were rejected by the then Secretary of State for Housing and Local Government, Robert Jenrick.
With this in mind, I wrote to the new Secretary of State Michael Gove on Friday 1st October about the proposal reminding him of the dismissal of the previous unitarisation attempt and urging him to act to ensure that Surrey undertakes proper, meaningful consultation with county and district councillors, and most importantly the public before they are allowed to move forward. As yet I have not received a response from Mr Gove.
I firmly believe that such a significant change to the structure of local government, and one that will bring big changes to the way services are provided to the public including five potential new taxes, should be undertaken in an open, transparent and democratic way. I am therefore publishing my letter to Mr Gove in full below. I hope that I will receive a reply in due course and, if I do, I will update local residents.
Rt Hon Michael Gove
Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
2 Marsham Street
Friday 1st September 2021
Dear Mr Gove
As Surrey MPs you, and your Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities colleague Angela Richardson, will be aware of the attempts last year by Surrey County Council's leader Tim Oliver to push forward the unitarisation of the county without consultation with county councillors, local district councils or residents. Proposals that cost £250,000 of local taxpayers money, were widely heralded as inappropriate for Surrey and were rejected by your predecessor Robert Jenrick.
I was therefore dismayed earlier this week to read the leaked Surrey County Council paper setting out a 'new' proposal for a 'County Deal' for Surrey.
Yet again the Conservatives are taking Surrey for granted. This deal could impose five new taxes and make it harder for local people to protect precious greenbelt land. You have clearly learnt nothing from the Chesham and Amersham by-election, or even recent election results here in Surrey.
This deal was not in the Conservative county council election manifesto and, having read the paper in detail, it is clear to me that the proposal is a thinly veiled attempt to unitarise the county by the back door.
What is more, County Council Leader Tim Oliver appears to have not learnt from the previous failed unitary bid and has once again omitted to speak to county councillors or borough and district council leaders about the proposal.
The 'County Deal' proposal highlights various supposed benefits for the county, in particular, increased power and independence in decision making. However, as you will also know, Surrey County Council's track record in the effective use of its current powers is not encouraging - four key services it manages were rated as failing until very recently. The new powers will also include the ability to raise five new local taxes - potentially putting further financial pressures on earnings and jobs at a time when so many are struggling to recover from the impact of the pandemic and of the Conservative government cutting the Universal Credit uplift and hiking National Insurance.
This deal doesn't sound like a better deal for local people.
The Liberal Democrat position on this 'County Deal' is simple. We will welcome new powers to help communities and businesses in Surrey, just as long as they are coupled with proper democratic accountability and oversight and just as long as they are used in the interests of all Surrey residents rather than just for the benefit of the Conservative party.
I urge you in your new role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that all local authorities, including Surrey, undertake proper consultation with councillors; borough and district councils; and most importantly the public when submitting applications for 'County Deals'. It is right that such deals, which will significantly change the structure of local government and therefore the way services are provided to the public, are undertaken in an open, transparent and democratic way - something that can only be achieved properly by meaningful public consultation in collaboration with borough/district councils. One potential way of doing this would be local referenda.
Ultimately, however, the Liberal Democrats still favour splitting Surrey into three small unitary authorities (north, west and east) so that strategic decisions can be made as close to local people and communities as possible and so that we can end the disjointed and inefficient split of responsibilities between the borough and the county.
I look forward to hearing your response on this matter and hope that you will carefully consider the serious and potentially negative impact on local people that this 'County Deal' will have on local residents and local democracy.
Parliamentary Candidate for Guildford, Cranleigh and our villages