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This briefing paper provides a guide to the concept of ‘unitary local government’, in the context of debates over local government restructuring in England in 2019 and 2020.

Section 1 sets out the legal procedure through which unitary authorities are created and provides a brief history of political debates and the creation of unitary authorities since 1974. Section 2 assesses Government policy on the topic of restructuring and unitary authorities since 2010. Section 3 provides details of previous rounds of restructuring in England, including details of the July 2021 decisions to create unitary authorities in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset.

Section 4 sets out details of reports modelling the potential savings that could be achieved by such changes, plus the figures that are available from previous restructuring processes in England. Section 5 provides details of proposals for new unitary authorities in England that have emerged during 2019 and 2020, together with related commentary.

Section 6 notes a number of the rationales for restructuring, and for merger of smaller authorities into larger units, that have occurred in recent debates in England. A small amount of debate has also taken place on how to achieve the benefits associated with restructuring through alternative means: this is set out in section 7. Section 8 provides details of international academic research on the topic of local government mergers and reforms.

As Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have entirely single-tier systems of local government, this paper covers England only.

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