Torbay Council leader joins calls to delay local government shake-up

Steve Darling, leader of Torbay Council

Steve Darling, leader of Torbay Council - Credit: Archant

The leader of Torbay Council has joined a call to delay a massive reorganisation of local government.

Steve Darling has signed a letter from Liberal Democrat councillors warning the shake-up would be an ‘unwelcome distraction’ from efforts to tackle Covid-19 and support economic recovery.

They say they oppose any restructuring imposed on communities which would take decision-making further away from voters.

Devon is expected to be next in line in the West Country for a reorganisation to dismantle the currently two-level set-up in some parts of the county.

And that could also trigger a change in Torbay, which is one of the country’s smallest unitary authorities.

A recent report by the County Councils Network said replacing the two-tier system across England could save up to £3billion over five years.

Torbay - population 136,000 - and Plymouth - population 263,000 - have single-tier unitary authorities responsible for all services.

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But the rest of the county is covered by Exeter-based Devon County Council providing services such as education, social services and highways.

There are eight district councils providing services such as planning, housing and leisure.

Many areas also have parish and town councils, with responsibility for some local services such as grass-cutting and waste bins.

Critics say the system is needlessly expensive and can be confusing about who does what, but supporters say it bring democracy and decision-making closer to voters.

In Torbay, only Brixham has a town council. A proposal to set up similar bodies for Torquay and Paignton was dropped at the start of this year after public opposition.

A report by the County Councils Network said replacing two-tier counties with a single unitary authority could save almost £3billion over five years. The study, from accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)  said putting two unitaries in place would reduce the savings to £1billion. Crucial to the new arrangements will be the preferred size of new unitary councils, and there has been speculation the Government wants to set a maximum of 600,000.

The population currently covered by Devon County Council and the eight districts is around 800,000, so that could see it split in half, with Torbay merged in.

Torbay’s MP Kevin Foster says the current two-tier system is on the way out, and wants Torbay to join the discussion about the future shape of local government.

He said: “The two-tier system does not have a long-term future and at some point Devon will need to decide how a unitary system would look in the traditional Devonshire county.

“This is a debate our bay should be part of, rather than looking to remain solely on the basis of the boundaries drawn up in 1998.”