Whitehall’s shock council bombshell: embargoed until Monday 1 April 2024

Embargoed until 0900 Monday 1 April

The world of local government was shocked and rocked to its very foundations by Whitehall’s announcement of “root and branch” reforms which will affect the funding, structure and responsibilities of all 317 councils in England and Wales.

The most eye-catching aspect sees responsibility for sewerage system repairs and customer service transferred from water companies to parish councils “within months”. Water firms will, however, still be responsible for billing and new infrastructure.

The proposals will also remove the need for homebuilders to add sustainable features such as solar panels or heat pumps to new homes, this instead being passed to homeowners to retro-fit.

To increase efficiency, some unitary authorities (including Berkshire’s) will be merged. In other cases, including in Oxfordshire, a third level will be introduced between districts and counties. The number of councillors nationwide will also be halved before the May 2026 elections.

Long-anticipated changes are also promised to the planning process, including a self-certification system. There will be an additional developer contribution which will operate alongside CIL and S106 agreements. Council finances also stand to benefit with the current cap of 4.99% on council-tax increases set to be raised.

“It’s long been clear that local government is in need of overhaul,” a DLUHC spokesperson commented. “These measures will address the most immediate challenges and ensure that, as well as being fit for purpose, local authorities accurately reflect and respond to local concerns.” He added that the necessary legislation could be introduced within months.

The press release provided contact details for journalists needing further information. I had a few questions, so arranged a Zoom call with Lupine de Souza from New Way PR.

“So,” she said, once we’d cleared the cats and babies off our desks, “where shall we start?”

“Sewerage,” I said. “How’s that going to work?”

She nodded. “Everyone knows the water companies are hopeless. They also have no local answerability. Councils do. People blame councils for this anyway. So it’s the obvious solution. Parish and town councils have the biggest incentive to fix the problem so let’s get them to work on the sewers. They don’t do very much, anyway. Can’t be worse than what we have now.”

I tried to take all this in. “Money,” I said at last. “The water companies will keep that.”

Well, yes,” she replied, as if talking to a child. “Otherwise they’d go bust.”

“So might the councils.”

“Two answers to that – efficiencies and new funding. Every organisation can introduce efficiencies,” she continued, moving her iMac so the screen avoided the spring sunshine reflecting off the glaze on the André Bicat print on the wall behind her desk. “We’re mandating a reduction in the number of councillors. Most don’t do much. Local government shouldn’t be a retirement home for middle-class white men with nothing better to do than bicker with experienced council officers. That’s off the record, by the way.”

I pretended I hadn’t heard that. “Most them work very hard,” I suggested. “The only reason there’s that kind of demographic is you often can’t do the work if you’re holding down a job or bringing up children.”

“That’s not the Department’s view,” she snapped. “Also, don’t forget we’re raising the cap on council-tax increases from 4.99%.”

“To what?”

“What’s the next obvious number?”

“Considering everything, I’d say 10%. Services have to be paid for somehow.”

She shook her head. “Closer than that.”

“Seven?””

“Get real. Five.”

“But that’s where it is now, give or take about nothing.”

She frowned at me. “Every little helps. Also, five is an important psychological break-point.”

“So they’ll feel better about it, even though it only gives them a tiny bit more? Five is what most of them have been calling it anyway.”

“How they spin this is not our concern,” she replied, pouting slightly.

There was a pause while we each regained our composure. “So,” I went on, “This three-tier system…”

Her expression brightened. “In-depth consultancy has shown some councils are too big and others too small. Also, some areas benefit more from multi-level service provision than others. So – reform is needed.” I was about to ask a question but she was too quick for me. “Two examples. Berkshire. Six unitary councils – Wokingham, West Berkshire, blah blah. One ceremonial county. Berkshire. Royal Berkshire, even. Used to exist. Six is too many. Hard-pressed taxpayers deserve better. So, we’ll be putting Berkshire, and others, back together.”

“But…”

“Then the other way. South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse are effectively living in sin. Same comms, shared offices, joint local plan etcetera. Five districts in Oxfordshire but they all hate the city council. So, we create an Area Council called South and Vale, between the district and the county. In the middle, do you see?” She made gestures, as if demonstrating how to make a cheese sandwich.

“Yes, but…”

“It’s not just geographical,” she continued. “Cheshire and Surrey have more in common with each other than with most of their neighbours. Or take the New Forest, Wyre Forest and Forest of Dean – where I grew up, actually. Weird place called Welsh Trefford.” She paused, lost in a reverie I couldn’t share, then shuddered slightly. “Anyway – see the connection?”

“You’re not suggesting…”

“Point is, nothing’s off the table.” At that moment, her personalised Emma Bridgewater mug was nearly knocked off the table by a labradoodle which had loomed up and was trying to lick her face. She casually cuffed it out of sight.

“What about planning self-certification?” I asked after she’d mopped some spots of latte off her Jimmy Choo blouse.

“Too much red tape. Too many officers, committees, conditions, etcetera. Developers build what they want anyway once they’ve got permission. Enforcement is not our preferred route. Carrot, not stick, is the motto. So, developments of fifty-plus homes are automatically green-lighted and the authority has to oppose via judicial review within two weeks. Good luck to them on that. Otherwise, bring on the diggers.”

“Mmm. Let’s move on to incentives for eco retro-fitting .”

“Well,” she said carefully, “the details are still being worked out…”

“Sure. But what do you have in mind?”

“Put it this way: we’re not going to make it illegal.” She laughed at this point; or I thought she laughed but the image briefly pixelated making it look more like an angry grimace.

“But mere legality isn’t an incentive. Are there any grants, for instance?”

“Well, not yet. But there might be, I suppose.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier, and a lot cheaper, to compel the builders to put these features in rather than leave it to to the owners to do it later?”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Why should hard-pressed developers be forced to add this so-called green stuff purchasers might not want? It’s a question of choice.”

“OK,” I said slowly. “One last thing. New developer contributions. There are already two. Many think it’s complicated enough already. How’s this going to help?”

“Glad you asked,” she said, though it didn’t appear she was. “We’re introducing a Small Developer Contribution – SDC. Some councils managed to exempt home extensions from CIL and there’s recently been a case in, er…oh yes, West Berkshire – which won’t exist any more, by the way – whereby the Council has refunded payments charged to people changing their homes. Madness. Hard-working local communities are being defrauded by…”

“Hang on,” I interrupted. “The system is really complex. It lets planning authorities wait for people to make small errors and then pounce on them.”

“So? Anyway, of course it’s complex! The planning system is like jazz, or medieval Portuguese. You can’t have anyone using it. Plus, we have housing targets which we expect to be met. The last thing we want is people to make their homes better so they stay there. Sell and move on, that’s the way forward. So, we’re smoothing the path for large developments.”

“You don’t want people to improve their homes?”

“God, no.”

“Not even by retro-fitting eco features that the builders should have put in in the first place?”

“You don’t pay CIL on those,” she snapped back. “That’s what we’re talking about.”

“But…”

“We thought CIL would scare off people who couldn’t access expensive advice but some councils have now decided they want to help their residents, for some mad reason. SDC will be a mandatory seven-stage process, putting small developers on notice to get real about the world of pain they’re entering. Also, CIL charges will be tapered off – the more homes you build, the less you pay.” She beamed at me.

“And the less money the authority gets for providing the mitigations.”

She flashed me another cold stare. “We’ve already discussed efficiencies and extra revenue.”

“OK. So, what kind of hurdles will this SDC require?”

She reached for a piece of paper and slid her Cartier Panthere spectacles a little further down her nose.

“Point 22, for example, specifies that ‘all applications (as defined by the 1996 Act) must, to be exempt from a double charge of SDC, demonstrate an increase of no more than an Approved Percentage of the Total Occupiable Area greater or equal to that which any previous permission had aggregated to the Permissible Structure Limits save where the local plan (if adopted less than five years before validation) permitted variation subject to conditions or provisions in the Act or as otherwise defined by statute’.” She tossed the paper onto the desk, from which it was immediately snatched by the labradoodle. “Seems clear enough to me.”

“Are people expected to understand that gibberish?”

“That’s your word. I didn’t say that. The consultants who wrote that have many large government contracts.”

“I’m sure they do.”

I surveyed my notes. It seemed pointless to continue. “I think have all I need. Any final comment?”

“Yes – ‘we’re giving local government something to think about’.”

“You’re certainly doing that. Thanks for your time.”

At that point the labradoodle made another leap, this time for her iMac. There was a crash and an oath; and then the screen went blank.

Brian Quinn

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