The Tory administration at Surrey County Council has proposed to Boris Johnson’s government the creation of one single ‘Monster Surrey’ local authority in Surrey. The idea is described as ‘revolutionary’ (their language) by the Tories and it would be the end of all eleven borough/district councils, including Waverley Borough Council, Elmbridge Borough Council and others. Instead, they would be merged into Surrey County Council, creating a behemoth of 1.2m residents.
The Liberal Democrats regard this as a shameless power grab by the Conservatives in Surrey, as well as nationally. Having lost their majority in several Surrey boroughs, it’s seen as a Tory tactic of trying to stay in control by centralising political power even more than is already the case.
The ‘financially distressed’ Surrey is trying to sell the idea of a single Surrey-wide mega council to residents as a way of saving money by making things simpler. But in Elmbridge, the Lib Dems question whether the Tory scheme is just a guise for robbing our ‘piggy bank’ as our own finances in the Elmbridge Borough Council are robust. What’s more, Surrey has an ominous track record of ‘outsourcing’ its services to us in Elmbridge but then failing to pay for it.
Liberal Democrats are all for streamlining and economising local government by establishing unitary authorities. But the answer is not in a bloated and wasteful bureaucracy, where residents’ needs are compromised and the promised savings evaporate in pursuit of the Tories’ ruthless drive for more centralised control.
Here are five good reasons why we must oppose the Tory plan to create a ‘Monster Surrey’ authority.
Instead, we should seek to establish three or four reasonably sized unitary authorities, which are responsive to residents needs and service-minded in their operations. What’s more, being nimble in size and culture they would also save money, not waste it in inefficient bureaucracy.
Reasons why we should oppose the Tory plan for a single mega-size Surrey authority:
#1 Surrey residents have been ambushed
The Tory administration at Surrey County Council has ambushed Surrey’s residents by charging ahead with a single ‘monster authority’ proposal without asking for our opinion. We must insist on a proper and orderly consultation before Boris Johnson with his cabinet of yes-men (including Mr Raab) get to impose the plan on us.
#2 Financial estimates pie in the sky
The Tory proposals promise lots of ‘back of the envelope’ savings by creating one elephantine local authority in Surrey. These are a pie in the sky based on estimates by politicians and designed to sell the plan quickly with a ‘sign here now’ tactic. Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is a sensible reaction to this ‘high pressure’ sales approach.
#3 The voice of local people will be marginalised
A single council of 1.2 million people would be too remote and even more unaccountable as is already the case with Surrey County Council. With all decision-making concentrated in just a few hands for the entire county, the voice of local communities and people will be marginalised and sidelined.
#4 Surrey have mismanaged their existing services
Surrey County Council are incompetent and wasteful at managing services as is, let alone coping with the mega-sized bureaucracy required for the whole of Surrey. Would you trust them to do it well? Just check out their poor track record in Fire Services, children’s services, roads with potholes, ongoing cuts to social care, mental health and disability services. And yet their management costs remain among the highest of any county council in the country.
#5 A politically motivated manoeuvre at our residents’ expense
You have to ask why the Tory administration at Surrey County Council and their sponsors in Boris Johnson’s Conservative cabinet have decided to embark on ‘revolutionising’ (their language) our local government in the middle of the worst ever pandemic and with a prospective no-deal Brexit around the corner? What’s more, they are rushing to do it without any regard for the views and preferences of Surrey’s residents. It’s nothing but a politically motivated manoeuvre at our residents’ expense.
A better alternative
Liberal Democrats believe that three or four unitary authorities in Surrey would strike the right balance in terms of democratic accountability, quality of services and value for money. The key principle in any re-organisation of local government must be put to our residents first.