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Business: unitary status will aid economy

Both Bedfordshire County Council and Bedford Borough Council have been completing submissions to ministers.

The proposal from County Hall advocates a single authority covering the whole of the Bedfordshire outside Luton, which gained unitary authority status after the Banham Commission report in 1994.

Bedford Borough favours a reduction from Bedfordshire’s current four councils to two, with Bedford as a unitary authority and Mid and South Bedfordshire District Councils merged into a new Central Bedfordshire authority.

Business has welcomed the moves to reduce the number of local authorities in the county, saying that it would result in clearer strategic thinking, a more efficient use of public funding and would facilitate economic development. Richard Lacy, chief executive of the Chamber – which represents Bedfordshire and Luton business – has met with county council chief executive Andrea Hill to give the business view on the proposal.

Mr Lacy said: “If there were a smaller number of local authorities but those had unitary status, it would be a major aid to facilitating economic development in the sub-region. They would have more clout and we would have clarity in terms of strategic thinking, strong leadership and better use of public money.”

Council leader Cllr Madeline Russell said: “If Bedfordshire does not grasp the opportunity presented by this proposal, the county runs the risk of disappearing from the map forever. All the authorities in the county share the ambition of improving the quality of life for residents and keeping council tax down. We believe that, under the options offered by the government in the white paper, a county-wide unitary authority provides the best chance of achieving that ambition.”

Chief executive Andrea Hill added: “A single council covering all functions would be able to deliver better leadership for Bedfordshire’s future prosperity and deliver faster decisions. It would be able to clearly represent local views on the growth agenda and it would lobby with a stronger voice for investment in transport, new jobs, schools, medical and community facilities.”

Bedford Borough estimates it will save more than £26 million by becoming a unitary authority. Chief executive Shaun Field said: “We firmly believe that the people of Bedford Borough and the businesses that work within it would be better served with a council clearly focused around the issues and opportunities of our locality.”

Bedford Mayor Frank Branston (pictured) said that the Banham Commission in 1994 had proposed that both Luton and Bedford become unitary authorities, Mid and South Bedfordshire District Councils be merged and the county council be abolished.

Bedford as a unitary authority would result in clearer political leadership, accountability and community focus, the borough argues. In a joint letter with Mr Field, Mr Branston said: “We believe the confusion and inefficiency inherent in the two-tier system does not serve Bedford borough well.”

Whitehall will begin its review of all unitary authority bids this month, with follow-up consultation locally before the government’s decision is announced in July. Elections to the new unitary authorities will take place in May next year, with the new councils starting from April 2009.