Dear Mr Russell,

I am writing to express my concerns about replacing local councils with unitary regional authorities.

The rationale of such a change seems financial: economies of scale could be achieved through amalgamating service provision across a large area. Waste collection and disposal would no doubt be more efficient and thus incur a lower total cost when conducted at scale. Emergency services need large support networks to operate on the ground, so work well when operating over large areas.

Moreover, the administrative needs of governance could be streamlined. Running costs are present in all local councils, needed for each to operate. Thus unitary authorities are appropriate in rural regions, where councils for each small town would be burdensome considering the population size. Indeed, this is why the Cornwall unitary authority has been successful over the past decade.

However, Hertfordshire is no Cornwall. Half a million more people live in Herts compared to Cornwall. Those additional people tend to live in larger towns. In Cornwall, 160 people live per square km. In Herts, 721 people live in the same area. This is also creates an issue of identity. Cornwall is known for its strong regional identity. Never has anyone identified themselves first as being from Hertfordshire, then second from Watford.

With this in mind, the dissolution of local councils in favour of a unitary authority risks undermining the legitimacy of local government. Whilst I have opposed lots of planning decisions made by Watford Borough Council in previous years, I can accept them in the knowledge that the planning committee is made up of only councillors representing Watford residents.

Why should someone from Royston be in the position to cast a crucial vote on plans for a new high-rise building at the bottom of my Watford street? Indeed, there is a risk that coalitions of councillors from other places in the county might work in unison to steer building development away from their backyards and into Watford. The same arguments apply in reverse.

There is also a threat to the link between citizens and local government. Local elections already receive poor turnout, and that is with voters and non-voters knowing that they are electing local representatives to make local decisions. Interest in local politics will wane further if voters are told they are now electing candidates who will travel to a distant town to make decisions for even further away places about which they do not care. Furthermore, a local link between citizen and government is necessary for the accountability of certain services. Social housing is best managed at the local, not regional, scale because a government is more invested in people who share its place-based identity. Concerns and case-by-case decisions are best mediated by people with local knowledge, not a faceless administrator in a council office 50 miles away.

On the proposal itself - why can this be proposed and, as the tone of the article suggests, implemented without the direct consent of the people? ‘Dissolving’ local councils sounds like a one-sided decision. In the early 2000s Watford residents voted in a referendum on a proposed structural, constitutional change to their local government - the introduction of an elected mayor. Why can equally significant structural, constitutional changes to local government be made at the whim of a Westminster politician?

I look forward to your response.

Joe Moore

By email