We can’t go back to district councils but we can regain local control of decisions and make our rural voice heard

The decision for Shropshire to become a unitary council from May 2009 is still resented here in south west Shropshire. Under Shropshire Council’s first leader, it led to a huge centralisation of control in Shropshire and the sucking of rural resources into Shrewsbury and Oswestry. It was not going unitary that was the problem. It was the transfer of power from rural Shropshire to Shrewsbury. That was never a requirement of going unitary.

We can’t go back the local governance arrangements we had before 2009. But we can strengthen local democracy across the county by setting up powerful area committees with powers over local decisions, local funding and the right to scrutinise and challenge Shirehall. The committees will help level up funding between urban and rural Shropshire.

It is time for the rural voice to be as loud as the urban voice. Across the nation and here in Shropshire.

People around here are still sore about the abolition of South Shropshire District Council. I didn’t think it was a good move, though I did not live in Shropshire at the time and had no say in the matter. Nearly 15 years have passed since the merger of the five district councils and Shropshire Council into a single unitary body. It is now unrealistic to think that we can go back to councils.

If we hadn’t made the change then, we would be making it now. With swingeing government cuts to local government funding, the failure of ministers to address the soaring costs of adult social care and government limits on council tax rises. Across the country, counties are going unitary. Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Dorset are among the newest unitary councils. There are discussions at different stages on unitary schemes for Morecombe Bay, Somerset, North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Surrey, Essex and, more hesitantly, Oxfordshire. Not all are considering a single authority. Some like, Northamptonshire, will split into two unitary councils. Where councils are not planning to go unitary, many are sharing chief executives and back office functions, along with support for public facing roles like planning.

The issue facing us in South Shropshire is not that we have a unitary council. It is that the council has centralised control of the smallest decisions. We can reverse that. We should reverse that.

When the unitary council was established, it created local joint committees (LJCs) around the county. They had a budget for local grants and could hold debates on local issues. But Shropshire Council gradually squeezed the life out of LJCs. It withdrew the grant money. It stopped publishing agendas and minutes. It finally withdrew administrative support. I remember going to a meeting in Craven Arms with officers to discuss an LJC meeting on South Shropshire Hills becoming a national park. The attitude was hostile. They really didn’t want any public discussion of the idea, though mostly they didn’t want an LJC meeting. Unfortunately, I told them, I had already booked the room and advertised it. The meeting didn’t support a national park but that wasn’t the point. It was a debate we needed to have and Shropshire Council should not be suppressing debate.

Shropshire Council was determined to kill off local voices, and for the LJCs at least, has succeeded in doing so.

We can change this. We can give greater priority to local voices around the county. The way forward is to create powerful local area committees around the county. I don’t think these should be as large as the former district councils but should be bigger than the LJCs were. Ludlow, Clun and Bishop’s Castle might link together for example. But I am not arguing for specific geographies in this article. It is the principle of local control over local decisions that is important.

We need local decisions made by local people for local people. Having a unitary structure does not prevent that happening. Having powerful local area committees will help level up the urban rural imbalance that occurs on a national scale and also here within Shropshire.

It is time for the rural voice to be as loud as the urban voice. Across the nation and here in Shropshire.

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