Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
As the Local Government Association conference deliberates this week in Bournemouth, Conservative councillors have headed to the south coast to discuss everything from sustainable funding, adult and children’s social care, housing and homelessness, to local government in a post-Brexit world. But one issue looms large over all of these concerns: what should local government in England actually look like?
We have to face some simple truths. Our current model is increasingly unfit for purpose. There are too many tiers of local government. The financial situation is unsustainable. Many councillors are either too inactive, rarely gracing the doorsteps of their residents, or simply unsuited to overseeing multimillion pound local authorities. Many residents feel all their councils do is complain about government cuts, mess up the town centre, blame other tiers of government for service failures and send them rising council tax bills.
These are daunting issues indeed. But the answers may lie in thinking about how we deliver local government.
The debate around unitary authorities will be familiar to many Conservative Home readers, particularly if you happen to live in an area facing the prospect of one. The kickback against the arbitrary separation of historic communities, and fears around the loss of democratic representation, are well founded. But, in an interesting report released this week, the TaxPayers’ Alliance take a fresh look at the conditions which might make unitary authorities a decent answer to the issues we face.
Without a doubt, unitary authorities can help save taxpayers’ money. Properly identified future savings can deliver real long-term efficiencies. In particular, savings can be found in administration and back-office functions, alongside cutting duplication. For example, in Cornwall, duplication was identified in things like environmental health and trading standards. Though short-term cuts and knee jerk responses to obvious financial mismanagement are unlikely to deliver, unitaries can offer a much more stable foundation for keeping council tax down. Clear projections for long term savings should be one condition for new unitary authorities.
This,of course, needs to come hand-in-hand with good corporate governance. A more efficient council tends to be a better run council. Scrutiny of budgets and strategic decision making are key. The greater use of commercial investments provides a clear imperative for effective financial management. Yet there is no statutory requirement for English councils to have an audit committee. Proper oversight by well-qualified councillors is vital. As someone who has run his own business and managed a multi-million business within a larger plc, I understand the importance of clear lines of management, ownership of objectives and outcomes measured against Key Performance Indicators.
That brings us to one of the thornier issues around unitary authorities: not just financial oversight, but democratic accountability too. Let’s be clear: whatever form of local government we have, this is a recurring issue. The competition and buck-passing between parish, district, county councils and police and crime commissioners already results in poor outcomes for residents and kickback from voters.
But establishing new unitaries does give us the chance to create new structures to improve the situation. It’s true that smaller units of local government are closer to the communities they serve. But this can be replicated within a unitary structure. Durham and Wiltshire successfully employ area action partnerships for community engagement. In Durham, informal intermediary-level forums allow the public and local partners a say in shaping the delivery of local services. A survey conducted there, soon after it became a unitary, showed the highest satisfaction with the new arrangement came from Teesdale, which was previously the smallest district council in the country. Similarly, town councils serve as a forum for engagement with the community, while seemingly not alienating residents because of a larger structure and fewer councillors. Dare I say that perhaps fewer, better quality councillors could do more for voter engagement than lots and lots of uninterested ones? These models could be another condition of the creation of a unitary authority.
In the longer term, these conditions might even let us look again at what we actually expect from our councillors. Elected representatives sometimes find their roles torn between a full-time job, being a foot soldier for their political party and devoting the time and expertise needed to overseeing complex and often officer-led local authority structures. With a shift to a single tier system, and with fewer councillors, there’s no reason those who seek to serve couldn’t be rewarded accordingly, to improve the quality and commitment of elected councillors. This is only possible, and affordable, if we embrace a different model of local government.
While there is certainly a balance to be struck, we cannot deny that England is moving remorselessly towards a single tier system. Unitary authorities, with the strict conditions proposed by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, could be our Conservative answer to local government problems. If we can promise long term savings, cuts in council tax bills, better corporate governance and new structures for local accountability, residents may thank us for it at the ballot box.