Brokenshire confirms new unitary council for Buckinghamshire

Housing secretary James Brokenshire today announced that the government will proceed with the creation of a new unitary authority for Buckinghamshire, moving the prospect of a joint local plan covering the county a step closer.

New unitary confirmed: housing secretary James Brokenshire
New unitary confirmed: housing secretary James Brokenshire

In a written ministerial statement this morning, Brokenshire said he was content that the proposals would improve local government and had significant support and that he would now proceed with secondary legislation to create the new authority.

Buckinghamshire County Council, which has driven the plans, has said that better strategic planning for housing alongside infrastructure was a key motivation for the reorganisation.

The new authority would replace the county council and the four districts of Aylesbury Vale District Council, Chiltern District Council, South Bucks District Council and Wycombe District Council. However, it would exclude the unitary authority of Milton Keynes.

According to the county council, the decision means that it could start work on a single local plan for the county in four years’ time.

A statement on the county council’s Future Bucks website, said that the existing local plans "will be newly adopted at the launch of a new council and will therefore not change for the immediate future.

"Once the plans come up for review in 2022/2023 the new council could choose to develop a single local development and infrastructure plan for Buckinghamshire."

The Future Bucks website also said that the new council will run five separate planning committees to deal with applications.

The four districts had proposed a two-unitary authority model, with separate governance of the north and south of the county.

A statement on behalf of all four district councils said that they were "disappointed" by Brokenshire’s decision.

It said: "The secretary of state has previously stated there was a need to ensure broad consensus and we do not believe this has been achieved with the new single unitary district proposal.

"All four district councils, as well as many key stakeholders, firmly believe that the two unitary authority approach, based on the two different economic geographies in Buckinghamshire, is the best option for protecting, delivering and transforming the services needed both now and in the future. 

"We will now be considering our position, seeking further advice and reviewing the options available to us."

In his statement, Brokenshire said he expects the five councils to "promote and help support the development of neighbourhood plans, as I consider these can be key building blocks for the successful implementation of change in Buckinghamshire that residents deserve".

He added that if parliament approves the secondary legislation, "the new council will be established on 1 April 2020 with the first elections to the council held on 7 May 2020".

Brokenshire said he intends to "explore with the district councils whether they would like me to make and lay before Parliament an order to delay for one year the May 2019 local elections in Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks and Wycombe, so as to avoid councillors being elected for only one year if Parliament approves the legislation establishing the new council".

A Buckinghamshire County Council spokesman said: "The new single unitary council will enable all local services, including planning, to be modernised for the benefit of Buckinghamshire’s residents and businesses. Decisions about the current local plans will remain a decision for the existing district councils until the new unitary council is established.

"In the future, the new unitary council will be able to plan strategically across the geography of Buckinghamshire."

The local plans for Aylesbury Vale and Wycombe councils are currently undergoing examination by a planning inspector, while South Bucks and Chiltern councils intend to prepare a joint local plan between them.

Tim Burden, director in the Reading office of planning consultancy Turley, said that work on the South Bucks and Chiltern joint plan is on hold until the other two are signed off.

He said: "Aylesbury, in particular, is grappling with some big issues over the duty to cooperate – its plan proposes to take 5,750 homes of unmet need from Chiltern and South Bucks. This needs to be signed off before the joint plan for South Bucks and Chiltern can move forward."

Burden said a joint plan for the whole county could help coordinate growth, but would not remove issues of pressure from unmet needs in Slough, Milton Keynes and Luton.

In May, Buckinghamshire County Council leader Martin Tett told Planning: "At the moment you have a ridiculous situation where a district council plans how many homes go where and it’s thrown to the county council to plan roads, schools and other infrastructure."

"Under the unitary proposal you would have one council that plans it all in a holistic way."

In March, former housing secrerary Sajid Javid announced that he was "minded to" implement the unitary plan in a bid in part to facilitate "a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges".

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