Two tier or not two tier…
Is Strategic Planning in Hertfordshire best served by a unitary?

The current Local Government structure in Hertfordshire comprising the County Council and ten district and borough Councils, which has been in place since local government reorganisation in 1974, is set for change. 

The Rt. Hon. Robert Jenrick MP has said on several occasions in recent months that he wants to encourage more district councils to merge into new unitary authorities to help them deal with strategic issues including housing and transport. 

While not a new idea, there is a renewed focus on structural change.  At the 2019 Conservative Party conference Jenrick said that he does not feel there is a long-term future for two-tier local government and that the mayoral model in conjunction with unitary councils is strongly preferred by government when considering devolution deals.

Leader of Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) David Williams has revealed Hertfordshire County Council has commissioned consultants to look at options for “structural reform”. He will however face opposition as the Leaders of the 10 other councils have said they oppose the plans.

Under the existing two-tier system, district and borough councils provide the county’s 1.2m residents with services such as refuse collection and housing, while Hertfordshire County Council oversees services such as education, social care and highways.

The high-level report identifies three options, two of which would create a completely new arrangement for Hertfordshire, not simply rearranging the existing administrative arrangements. 

The first would result in the creation of a single unitary authority as a completely new organisation operating across the whole county area. The existing administrative arrangements both at county council and district council level would cease to exist in this scenario.  The second would result in the creation of two unitary authorities. Once again, these would collectively be continuous with current county boundaries, but two unitary areas would be created. The suggested geography broadly aligns with existing partnership arrangements in the South West and North East areas of Hertfordshire.

South West

North East

Dacorum

Broxbourne

Hertsmere

East Hertfordshire

St Albans

North Hertfordshire

Three Rivers

Stevenage

Watford

Welwyn Hatfield

Population 2018: 595,670

Projected Population 2031: 651,600

Population 2018: 588,695

Projected Population 2031: 650,900


Proposals will claim that unitary local government will enable more effective joining up and delivery of services, at less cost, and a more effective ‘customer experience’ for local people who will access public services from a single council. Greater financial resilience and strategic vision are also cited as positives. Those against will highlight concerns over potential loss of local responsiveness of services and that Projected savings will fail to materialise.

The report identifies at a high level the sustainability of each option with a focus on benefits financially and on service delivery. While not explicitly discussed in the report, the implications of a switch to a unitary approach on Strategic Planning could be transformational. 

To understand Strategic Planning in Hertfordshire it helps to take a short trip down memory lane. From 2004 Regional Assemblies were responsible for strategic planning which was done through regional strategies. In November 2011, the Localism Act signalled the end of regional strategies which were officially revoked in 2013. Between 2011 and 2013, regional strategies still formed part of the statutory development plan and therefore continued to influence the strategic policies in local plans adopted before 2013. In Hertfordshire this included Core Strategies in Hertsmere, Watford, Three Rivers and Dacorum.

Following revocation of the regional strategies in England (outside London), strategic planning is now the responsibility of unitary, district or borough councils. Authorities are expected to address strategic issues in local plans and demonstrate how this has been managed through the ‘duty to co-operate’ set out in Section 110 of the Localism Act and amplified in National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and in the National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG). 

The challenges bring forward new Local Plans in Hertfordshire are well documented.  Highlighted most strikingly in St Albans not fulfilling their requirements of the ‘Duty to Cooperate’ with neighbouring authorities in the preparation of its Strategic Local Plan (2016) and ongoing challenges at their current Examination in Public.  Others have and are wrestling with cross boundary challenges, East of Hemel Hempstead, Birchall Garden Suburb, and North of Stevenage to name three.

Bidwells' view

Matthew Wilson, Associate Planner at Bidwells, says,  "If Hertfordshire is to deliver on its potential (remembering the catch line under the county signs is “county of opportunity”) strong coordination on strategic planning matters are required.  Evidence to date does not suggest that the duty to co-operate, and resulting countless memorandums of understanding, can facilitate this. 

Over the years local politics has often had different and conflicting local visions for employment and housing.  The lack of a regional level of oversight has resulted in councils becoming locked into disputes over housing and as a result new homes have taken longer to deliver.   With districts and boroughs required to bring forward increasing levels of growth and with finite brownfield land to deliver this, difficult decisions and cooperation is required. 

There are encouraging signs of cooperation. The South West Herts authorities has embarked on a joint strategic plan.  Each council will still be responsible for preparing their own Local Plan, but a JSP will be a critical stage in local planning work across South West Hertfordshire, setting the strategic framework and shared priorities within which individual local plans can be prepared.

To the disappointment of some, there is no sign of structure plans returning anytime soon. For Strategic Planning in Hertfordshire to be a success maybe it is time to try a unitary approach bringing with it greater ease of strategic decision-making, with fewer local partners.  

We watch with interest how the Hertfordshire County Council led proposals exploring unitary options for Hertfordshire develop and also the much anticipated and heralded ‘ambitious’ Planning White Paper.”

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