East Sussex County Council’s leader is ‘not aware’ of any formal unitary bid but would ‘look forward to seeing one if it occurred’.
Eastbourne’s Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd has called for a debate on consolidating the different tiers of local government, while Lewes District Council and Eastbourne Borough Council, which already share services, said they were having informal conversations about a possible bid to breakaway from County Hall.
Conservative MP for Lewes Maria Caulfield has also weighed in, as she believes a move to unitary authorities would result in savings and end confusion about which council is responsible for what.
Earlier this week Keith Glazier, county council leader, raised doubts about the level of potential savings that could be achieved by such a move.
Carolyn Lambert (LDem, Seaford South) said: “Cllr Glazier has spoken eloquently and appropriately about lobbying central government regarding our financial position. He spoke in particular about the meeting he held with our local Conservative MPs.
“Unfortunately that meeting was closely followed by the announcement of the appointment of a marketing manager for East Sussex.
“That appeared to irritate the Conservative MP for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), to such an extent that she announced she was going to seek a meeting with a minister, regarding the setting up of a unitary authority in East Sussex, which she believes will be better value for money.
“I would be very interested to hear Cllr Glazier’s reaction to that proposal from one of his own Conservative MPs.”
In response Cllr Glazier (Con, Rye and Eastern Rother) said: “I am very clear, this council looks at opportunities in working with other councils across the piste, and I know the districts within East Sussex do the same.
“At the end of the day I am not aware of any unitary bid and I would look forward to seeing one if it occurred. This council will continue to look at the best way of delivering services for the people of East Sussex.
“My good friend Maria Caulfield has a view that unitaries are the answer, but it depends entirely on what the question is.
“If [the question] is ‘can we deliver services better, in a more joined-up way?’ Then the answer is let us look at it.
“If it is ‘can we make savings that we currently need to meet the £46m funding gap?’
“Not a chance.”
The subject had also been raised earlier in the meeting at County Hall on Tuesday (October 16) by Godfrey Daniel (Lab, Hastings - Braybrooke and Castle), who described it as the ‘elephant in the room’.
He said: “I wonder does the leader of the council feel undermined by Lewes District and Eastbourne Borough playing up the financial difficulties of East Sussex, by planning on going and dismembering the county and going to a unitary authority?
“That message which is coming across in the media is extremely harmful for East Sussex.
“I wonder if he would like to give some comments on how he thinks that is playing out for the public and the county.
“I accept the assurances of the finance officers and the lead members that we are not financially devastated, but I do wonder if these discussions that are going on between these two district/borough authorities are undermining the picture.”
Cllr Daniel said council members who are ‘double-hatting’ – sitting on both district and the county councils – should consider if they are harming the county council’s position.