Report sets out strategic planning benefits of creating county-wide unitary authorities

Reorganising England’s local government into larger county-wide unitary authorities would help strategic planning for housing and infrastructure, according to a new report commissioned for the County Councils Network by multinational professional services firm PwC.

Image: Pikist (public domain)
Image: Pikist (public domain)

The report is intended “to inform the development” of the forthcoming English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper, due to be published this autumn.

Ministers have said the paper will set out plans for creating more unitary local authorities, as well as devolving power and creating more, and more powerful, elected mayors.

To this end, the report looks at the impact of different merging or other reorganising scenarios on the planning system, where it says “operational benefits can be maximised”.

For example, managing availability of land for housing “in a coordinated fashion across a broader functional economic area, would be more complicated between multiple authorities than it would be under a single entity operating at scale”, it says.

It adds that a single planning service could also “enable a place-based approach, joining up all assets and opportunities rather than working to multiple local and industrial plans”.

Stakeholders interviewed for the report cited the delivery of planning, infrastructure and housing as one area where “through operating at a larger scale, they were able to influence more long-term strategic initiatives”, it says.

The government’s recently published Planning White Paper (PWP) “makes clear the need for a significant acceleration in the number of new homes”, as well as setting out “how overhauling the planning system could make the system more responsive and strategic”, it notes.

Currently however, the need to build large numbers of new homes each year “is complicated in two-tier areas by the split of responsibilities for planning and infrastructure between district and county councils”.

Meanwhile, “there are significant challenges about funding for infrastructure where county councils report that inconsistent implementation of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) by district councils is inhibiting a strategic approach to maximising developer contributions”.

The report also provides financial analysis to show that, disaggregated, planning authorities “are inevitably constrained in their ability to plan across a wider geography and have less disposable land and assets created by reorganisation to repurpose for development”.

The white paper's proposed three-way allocations of development zones into growth, renewal and protected areas “will require strategic planning at scale across a much wider geographical footprint, covering multiple housing market areas”, it says.

Overall, merging district and county councils into single unitary councils in each of the 25 remaining two-tier areas could save £3bn over five years, the report says.

Replacing counties and districts with two unitary authorities in each area would reduce this saving to £1bn, with creating three unitary authorities in the same area would deliver a net loss nationally of £340m over the same period, it calculates.

Backing the report’s findings, the chairman of the County Councils Network umbrella body, councillor David Williams, said: “Unitary counties won’t lead to a democratic deficit.

"Rather, as evidenced by authorities that have already made this journey, they have the potential to bring services closer to residents, developing new ways for residents to engage and shape service provision more effectively and enhance local democratic participation with empowered town and parish councils.”

The move towards unitary authorities “can be seen as part of a drive towards more centralised control in planning to try to speed up the system”, according to David Bainbridge, director of planning at property agency Savills.

“Unitary authorities can sit quite comfortably within the proposed changes to the planning system,” he added. “But ultimately, whatever the system looks like it needs adequate resourcing, and for planners and built environment professionals to be respected.”

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