Going unitary? Be prepared

The government has recently decided that Somerset will become a unitary council. So goodbye, in 2023, to Taunton Deane, Mendip, South Somerset and so on. And North Yorkshire is going down the same route, with Cumbria effectively being split into two unitary councils.

It seems to me that the process of transforming local government into single tiers (or two if you include parish and town councils) will continue. The days of small district and borough councils operating to increasingly tight budgets and with, let’s face it, relatively limited powers and responsibilities may well be numbered.

So, what does this mean for voluntary and community organisations? County-wide organisations, for example, might not see much difference. And local groups in areas where the district or borough council is not providing significant financial or other support for the sector may also not be affected a great deal.

But, if your organisation does have significant funding and other relationships with second tier authorities then you need to plan for these effectively disappearing. That may well mean developing your links at a county level and building partnerships with organisations in other areas to offer a county-wide service or function. You may also be able to secure some agreements that any current district level funding is protected for a specified period when unitary status appears.

More fundamentally it could mean merging with others to become a county-wide organisation. That could well be challenging for your trustees and supporters who value the independence, identity and local rooted-ness of your existing organisation.

So, if you operate in a two-tier area at present then my message is to start thinking now about the implications of unitary status, whether or not you feel your area is in the pipeline for local government reform. And crucially that thinking should start with your trustees.

Stephen Woollett