Both Labour and the Conservatives have tried to achieve significant savings through the reorganisation of local government structures. These savings are rarely achieved in practice.
This is why the Permanent under Secretary for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) Peter Housden refused to approve Norwich and Exeter’s move to unitary status unless “instructed.” He could not guarantee it would provide “value for money.” If it fails to do so he could be personally liable for a breach of financial proprietary rules. Thereby he needs to show he was compelled to act.
The Labour Government have consistently argued that those who resist the drive to unitary status will have to achieve the ‘savings’ envisaged regardless. Local authorities have been treated as though they were unitary when deciding funding or drafting regulations whether or not this was the case. This has caused significant problems e.g. differences on who is responsible for meeting Government targets.
If we were to design local government afresh it is unlikely that we would create a two tier system. The duplication of HR, legal and other back office functions wastes significant resources. Two tier authorities often exhibit some hostility between the two bodies. A single tier by its nature does not have this problem.
However, Britain already has less representation per head than comparable western nations. A drastic reduction in the number of councillors is not the best way forward. One can see why Labour advocated this approach. It would eliminate thousands of Conservative (overwhelmingly) councillors. However, the Conservatives must demonstrate that we can deliver significant efficiencies without doing this. How then can we achieve this?
In 2006 I and Tim Palmer (ex leader of Dorset County Council) explored the options for Local Government reform in a pamphlet entitled No More Tiers: Reforming Shire Government for Policy Exchange. This did not propose the simple abolition of District councils. We considered a variety of different models, each of which included retaining the same number of elected representatives. Updating this proposal in light of recent developments I think the following policies have merit:
- The number of local councillors should remain the same. Super size constituencies do not deliver for local people. Councillors become detached from the people they represent. Given we are retaining the same number of councillors; each one will now represent a smaller ward than before. Clearly there would then need to be redistricting to resolve the overlap between county and district councillor’s wards.
- Both the district and the county should be amalgamated into one county-wide authority. The division between a district councillor and a county councillor would end. All local councillors would belong to the same county wide authority. They would then meet at a lower level as local committees to discuss more local issues.
- Financing: A local committee could raise a local precept to pay for local services. A county committee could set a countywide budget and raise a countywide precept to pay for the strategic services.
- Powers: The definition of what powers qualify as strategic would be decided by the local committees. Power would flow from the bottom upwards.
- A unified officer structure: The officer structure would match the new political arrangement. There would be one Chief Executive with local management heads matching the local committees.
- Total Place: This scheme allows local authorities to shape public service provision in their area. It is still in the development phase having been deployed in thirteen pilot areas. It should be expanded
nationwide with power devolved to the new countywide arrangements.
The Labour party argues that unitary authorities provide better value for money. They say these bodies will be able to wield real power. We should call their bluff. Let’s create single tier authorities without firing any Conservative councillors. Let’s campaign for these new bodies to be given full powers over the public services that operate in their areas. We will then see what the real motive was for the Government's enthusiasm for the move to unitary status.
The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation I am associated with.