Abolishing district councils could help bolster Conservative MPs in former Labour strongholds by reducing local opposition, a leading Tory has suggested to the prime minister in a leaked letter.
Boris Johnson has been urged to scrap the midsized local government bodies in part to help Conservatives in the so-called “red wall” seats that were gained in the December 2019 general election from Labour in its former northern strongholds.
The call comes from David Williams, the leader of Hertfordshire county council, who heads the Conservative group at the County Councils Network. It reveals a party political dimension to plans to simplify local government by removing district and borough councils, leaving only very local parish and town councils and larger unitary authorities like county councils. Williams is among local government leaders frustrated at government delays to reforms.
In the letter, seen by the Guardian, Williams told Johnson not to “ignore the political implications [of reform] for both Conservative councillors and MPs … and in particular our new red wall MPs”.
Williams said: “It is no surprise to me that many of those celebrating reports of delays are Labour and Liberal Democrat district councillors who regard the prospect of strong county based unitaries as threats to their strongholds.”
Seats such as Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire and Burnley in Lancashire, gained by the Conservatives last year, overlap with Labour-controlled district councils, providing the party with a base from which to fight back, Conservative activists fear.
Williams said: “Conservative representation at the county level remains strong but even in solidly Conservative counties like Surrey, only just over a third of local councillors within district and borough councils are Conservatives.”
Prof Tony Travers, from the LSE Department of Government, said there was “no question” that abolishing opposition local councillors would help some MPs retain power, but he pointed out that sacrificing district councils would also mean losing thousands of Conservative local politicians in the south of England, many of whom form the backbone of campaigning operations at national elections.
Conservatives are in a stronger position on county councils, where they control two-thirds of seats, than they are on district councils where they have 48% of seats.
Williams urged the PM to ignore resistance to the abolition of district councils from district councillors themselves, saying they are “interested in self-preservation”.
“It is no surprise that so much of the vitriol aimed at Robert Jenrick [the housing secretary] for driving a unitary agenda has come from those sources obsessed with self-protection above good governance and a chance to transform our society for the better.”