BRACKNELL Forest could soon cease to exist if an overhaul of local government leads to the merger of Berkshire’s councils.

That’s the concern of councillor Paul Bettison, leader of Bracknell Forest Council (BFC), in anticipation of the government’s planned reorganisation of local authorities.

The plan is rumoured to include the creation of more unitary authorities across the country which will look after populations of between 300,000 to 500,000 people.

What could this mean for Bracknell Forest?

With a population of around 125,000, Cllr Bettison suggested the local government shake-up could mean Bracknell Forest is merged with its neighbours as part of the review.

He said: “The concern there is at some point in time the government might say to us, and this is pure speculation, ‘you should combine with neighbours to make up larger units so that you are of the same sort of size as others around the country’.

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“That would concern me and I’m sure that would concern all of our colleagues on Bracknell Forest Council because those who have been around a while have fought long and hard to gain our independence from the larger conglomerate that was Berkshire County Council.

“We didn’t do that just to be recombined 20 years later to recreate the county of Berkshire as one article of government.”

What does this mean for me?

Councils can be complicated beasts.

Currently, local authorities are split into single-tier and two-tier groups.

Single tier authorities, such as Bracknell Forest Council, Wokingham Borough Council and the other four Berkshire councils, are all known as unitaries.

They control and manage all of your local services, including planning, social care, rubbish collection and more.

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Two-tier authorities are made up of a county council and smaller district councils.

Their responsibilities are shared: county councils will manage education, social care, waste management and more, whereas district councils oversee housing, some planning matters and council tax issues.

Berkshire used to have this system before Berkshire County Council was broken up in 1998.

Recalling the old, larger council, Cllr Bettison recalled the “dreadful days when things took forever to happen.”

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He added: “Things move much faster in unitary authorities.

“They tend to provide governance at grassroots level.”

Although a new, larger Berkshire council would most likely be a unitary authority, Cllr Bettison suggested smaller councils facilitate the election of people who “understand what is happening and where.”

He added: “You can’t know an entire county like you can know your borough”, suggesting local knowledge could be lost if fewer councillors are representing larger areas at a county-wide authority.

Why is this reorganisation taking place?

In response to a question in June, former local government minister Simon Clarke said the local government overhaul would set out “transformative plans for economic recovery and renewal, and for levelling up opportunity, prosperity, and well-being across the country”.

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It could also mean more mayoral posts are created and could give town and parish councils more powers, too, according to LGC Plus.

Cllr Bettison’s interpretation of the shake-up was more concise.

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He said: “What the government has now accepted though is […] the bigger your authority, the cheaper it is to run.

“Because a large authority still only has one chief executive, and he or she may be paid a little more than the chief executive of a smaller authority, but it’s not like having several authorities with several chief executives.

“That’s the same for every head of department and so on.”

What does this mean politically?

Although it was originally due for publication in the first week of September, few details about the government’s councils shake-up have yet been revealed.

Despite this, Cllr Bettison also suggested an alternative to re-forming Berkshire County Council could be to create a West Berkshire unitary council and an East Berkshire unitary council — the latter being made up of Bracknell Forest, Windsor and Maidenhead and Slough.

The leader suggested the local government reorganisation would not be favoured by local Labour groups as merging Berkshire authorities would likely mean the left-of-centre parties lose out, given both Reading borough and Slough borough are Labour-led.

He added: “The Conservatives really don’t like the idea either, because in spite of what some might accuse us of, we’re really not into achieving world domination, and the reality is we all rather like being the unitaries that we are.

“We’re all exceptionally proud of our successes.”

What’s next?

Councillor Bettison, who chairs the Unitary Councils Network as part of the Local Government Association, said the group is meeting every week in preparation for the government’s reforms.

It is not clear when the Devolution White Paper will be published despite originally being set for the first week of September, but Cllr Bettison urged his colleagues to ‘get involved’ with the proposals.

Speaking at a meeting of BFC’s overview and scrutiny commission on Tuesday, September 15, he said: “It’s interesting times — please do become interested in this but don’t start preparing for thermo-nuclear war over it as we have much more pressing things to deal with.”