Mid Sussex leader rejects prospect of West Sussex unitary authority being debated this morning

Garry Wall
Garry Wall

Although diametrically opposed over Europe, the leaders of UKIP and the Liberal Democrats at County Hall have found common ground calling for a new unitary authority for West Sussex.

Both Mike Glennon (UKIP, Lancing) and James Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton) have tabled motions for this morning’s full council meeting calling for the chamber to debate merging the existing local authorities across the county into one.

The move would effectively abolish the existing Mid Sussex District Council, along with other district and borough councils in the county making up the second tier of local government.

However, the cost-saving initiative, which is set against the backdrop of the Conservative administration proposing to cut in excess of £100m from the council’s budget over the next four years, is not supported by Mid Sussex District Council’s Conservative leader.

Garry Wall (Con, Haywards Heath) told the Mid Sussex Times: “I am not going to be distracted by this issue; it is something that had been put forward previously.”

Indeed, 15 years ago Dr Walsh was on the other side of the debate and said he ‘resolutely fought to keep a two-tier Government’.

However, due to the ‘huge savings to be made’, Dr Walsh, the longest serving member of the County Council, has changed his mind.

Agreeing with the Liberal Democrat, Mr Glennon hopes future savings could mitigate against cuts he fears will impact frontline services.

The UKIP motion states: “It is not credible to pretend that massive reductions in the County Council annual budget are sustainable without major damage to front-line services.”

Mr Glennon hopes establishing a unitary authority in West Sussex could protect some council services affected by budget cuts.

He said: “We are living in an age of austerity and our County Council is proposing long-term budget reductions of £141m. They are rather shy with the word cutbacks and only talk about efficiencies.

“The latter is laudable, but no matter how we couch it, cutbacks are on the menu.

“Cutbacks to services, which will be felt typically by the most vulnerable in our society.”

The UKIP leader said restructuring carried out in Wiltshire in 2009 has brought estimated on-going annual savings to the council taxpayer of more than £20m, despite that county having a much smaller population.

To put this in context, West Sussex County Council cutbacks for this coming year are set at £14.7m, he said.

However, the Mid Sussex District leader has countered: “Shropshire and Wiltshire Unitary Councils are both facing very significant spending reductions this year; so unitary government clearly is not a panacea.”

Mr Wall added: “Large scale re-organisations are not universally popular, cost a lot of money and are disruptive.

“I don’t think reorganisation would solve funding issues.”

Mid Sussex District Council, at Oaklands, Haywards Heath, is one the area’s largest employers with more than 320 staff and an annual budget in excess of £13.5m.

Across West Sussex there are eight main councils, seven chief officers, seven finance directors as well as a whole range of highly-paid positions mostly multiplied by seven.

Serving the local constituencies there are currently 376 county, borough and district councillors, all of whom can claim expenses.

Dr Walsh said: “There are huge savings to be made.

“Every district and borough council in West Sussex has a team of senior officers.

“Why is that necessary? It could be done by one team.”

Mr Glennon agreed, adding: “We believe the time has come to work together with districts and boroughs, with parishes, with MPs and with our own political parties.

“My motion hinges upon the need for collaborative work, a steering committee, to guide us down an already well-trodden - though admittedly complex – path.

“We owe it to the people of our county.

“Wilful inertia on our part will be recognised for what it is – Government before People.”

The County Council declined the opportunity to comment, but a spokesperson did say both motions would be debated at Full Council tomorrow (Friday, February 14.)

Meanwhile, Robert Oxley, campaign director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “Local politicians need to deliver the best value for taxpayers’ money that they can, and in some cases that might be most aptly done as a unitary authority rather than an assortment of differing councils.

“Any move to a new structure must have the backing of residents though, and be properly thought through.

“Savings through shared services are real but there is also a danger of things going wrong with such radical change.

“It’s vital this is thought through properly.”