It will be less costly to merge with West Devon Borough Council now than rather than later - and a divorce would be expensive, says the leader of South Hams District Council.

John Tucker, Leader of South Hams District Council explained: “We are being told by Department for Communities and Local Government that it is better to merge now than later. It could be a paper tiger until it is tested but South Hams has to look at what is given to it by a government body.

West Somerset and Taunton Dean have been through this process. The Government told them in no uncertain terms: “Get on with it, merge and sort yourselves out or there is no funding from us”. If the Government started giving funding, to keep councils going, they would open a can of worms, especially at district level.

“The consultation that has begun has been impacted by information in the press and some of it is incorrect and it affects the consultation. West Devon is said to have £18 million of debt but they haven’t. It is an estimate of future pension liability. The problem we’ve got is that it’s the biggest decision both councils will ever make and once you put: West Devon has £18 million of debt, no matter what information we feed to you guys, the die is already set. You can get some people to think differently but the problem has started.

“Unfortunately everyone has concentrated on West Devon’s problems because they think we’re ok and we’ll swan along. If it carries on like it is today, we’re four to five years from having the same problem as West Devon and by then you’ll see an enormous number of councils up and down the country merging.

“If West Devon predicts that expenditure will exceed income and the monitoring officer issues a report, which he could do, not now but at some time in the future, then there is a real problem. If we say we’re not going to take them on and we divorce, to put it bluntly, it will be bloody expensive. It will cost us between £2.5 and £4million to get enough staff back to cover our services. We’ve saved £3.9 million by shared services with West Devon, so it is bound to cost us that to get divorced.

“Two and half years ago, council staff were put on redundancy notice, none of their jobs were the same and some applied and some took redundancy. More took redundancy than we anticipated but we made the savings and clawed the costs back in two years and eight months. We now have savings of £3.9 million and that’s for South Hams. It’s £6 million in total [including West Devon]. “If we divorce, we’re going to have to get extra staff. We’re between a bit of a rock and a hard place on this one and I don’t know what future governments are going to do.

“Even if Labour get in, they are going to be so bogged down with Brexit and everything else, are they really worried about local government? At the time of the election, the Labour Party gave no indication of helping us. The only area they mentioned was salary increases but that makes the situation worse.

“If you go back to 2009/10 when Cameron came into power there was a unitary bid, for Exeter. Labour, if they had won that election, would have confirmed it without any doubt. At the same time the county council put in a unitary bid for South Devon. We in the South Hams, wanted West Devon and Teignbridge to join us, as a unitary authority. Well obviously none of that happened.

“One unitary authority across Devon has the problem of size. It takes three hours to go from Salcombe to Ilfracombe, especially in the summer. Devon supplies its services on an area basis and they would have to continue doing that, so they would not get the full benefit of a unitary authority like being able to work out of Exeter, or out of Truro in Cornwall, or Trowbridge in Wiltshire, for instance.

“I don’t think there is any doubt [that a unitary authority will be created] it is just when but I don’t see it for the foreseeable future, certainly not this government. If you started the unitary process today, the earliest you could have it would be three and half year’s time.

“If you look at unitary authorities in Birmingham, Plymouth and Torbay: Birmingham is out of cash; Plymouth is struggling and Torbay is really struggling. It is the element of [responsibility to provide] social care that is the real problem, and highways. It is not the services we [SHDC] provide. You make some savings as you bring things together but that takes time.

Personally I’m in favour of a district council but I have never been against a unitary pattern. I don’t think that there is any doubt that unitary [authorities] will come eventually.”