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“More elected mayors and fewer councils to break Labour’s red wall strongholds,” declared the Sunday Times over the weekend. It is already Government policy to encourage more areas to become unitary authorities and for more directly elected mayors to be installed. But this report suggests that a White Paper on devolution, to be published next month, will give these changes more impetus. It says:

Dozens more elected mayors and the abolition of many councils are being planned under a shake-up of local government due to be unveiled next month.

“Ministers want to devolve more power to areas that agree to new elected mayors, who they argue are more accountable and better at boosting local economies. Conservatives have also proved more successful in winning mayoralties in “red wall” areas than they have in winning Labour-controlled councils. However, a fight looms over plans to abolish significant numbers of district councils, many of them Tory-controlled, as part of plans for a slimmed-down local government system.

“Downing Street denied that they wanted to abolish two thirds of authorities by replacing district councils with unitary authorities, and insisted change would happen only with local consent. However, ministers do want to move towards more single-tier council areas, which the County Councils Network estimates would save £3 billion a year.

“District councils oppose the move, saying it would create unwieldy mega-authorities responsible for more than a million people each, far larger than local government units in other countries. A cap of about 600,000 people in any unitary authority is being considered as one way of avoiding this.”

Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, “is seen as the prototype for winning Tory control of local government in the north and Midlands.”

It will be interesting to see what the devolution White Paper comes up with. But if the principle is maintained of local consent, it is hard to see how the change could be as dramatic as the tone of the Sunday Times piece suggests.

A quote from a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman in the Daily Telegraph yesterday sought to offer calm:

“We want to devolve and decentralise to give more power to local communities, providing opportunities for all areas to enjoy devolution.

“But there will be no blanket abolishment of district councils and no top-down restructuring of local government. The devolution White Paper, which will be published this autumn, will set out our detailed plans and we continue to work closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

The Telegraph report added some welcome news:

“Local communities could also seek to scrap modern municipal area names to give people a better sense of the history of where they live under the plans.

Another Government insider said: “We want to extend devolution to the whole country so that all areas benefit from this. It should not just be the big urban areas, it should be shires too, working closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

Campaigners who have been urging the Government to reinstate historic county names welcomed the news. Pam Moorhouse, the British Counties campaign, said: “Traditional county names were taken off us by Edward Heath in 1974 so it is about time they came back because millions want them.”

Under the changes, west Midlands could revert to Warwickshire, Cumbria could be replaced by Cumberland and Westmorland while Merseyside could be scrapped and replaced by a larger Lancashire.”

Last year, James Brokenshire, when he was Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, said:

“Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can – with local support – be an appropriate means of ensuring more sustainable local government and local service delivery, enhanced local accountability, and empowered local communities. This statement today continues the Government’s commitment to supporting those councils that wish to combine, to serve their communities better and will consider unitarisation and mergers between councils when locally requested. However, I recognise that unitarisation may not be appropriate everywhere. I also recognise that it is essential that any local government restructuring should be on the basis of locally led proposals and should not involve top-down Whitehall solutions being imposed on areas. The Government does not support top-down unitary restructuring. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010.”

I suspect that approach will continue. Not least because a significant shift towards unitary authorities is already happening and has been taking place for a number of years.

The Conservative Manifesto last year merely stated:

“We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK. Our ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny. We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year.”

It would be a bit of stretch to take that as a mandate for forced abolition of all the district councils.

There is a strong case for unitary status – with respect to both democracy and efficiency – in terms of ending duplication. The waste and confusion of residents of a town having two sets of councillors, a town hall and a county hall, two local authority chief executives on six-figure salaries… For example, it is not good for accountability that if the county council puts up the Council Tax, but the district council is blamed – because the bills are sent out at district level.

More contentious is the “economies of scale” argument. The logic of this is that the bigger the resulting unitary authority, the better. Ken Livingstone proposed replacing the 32 London boroughs with five “sub-regional partnerships” that would appear by dividing the map of London into slices of cake. That was not inspiring for local identity. But nor is it necessary for efficiency. Councils have alternatives to running everything themselves – such as sharing services or contracting them out to private companies. Flexibility is an example. The tri-borough arrangements for Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster delivered great savings. But offering big contracts can also limit competition by making it harder for smaller firms to tender – I have written for this site about this being a difficulty in terms of school transport for disabled children.

It may make sense for a compromise where, rather than a county council swallowing up all the district councils, we have two or three unitary councils across a district.

Directly elected mayors come in two types. There are the Metro Mayors who run “combined authorities” as an extra layer on top of other local authorities. Examples include Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. They have powers for regeneration and integrated transport. They will naturally lobby for more power and larger budgets. They are a legacy from the Labour Government’s Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and are almost inevitably a corporatist force seeking greater state intervention.

Then there is the situation where a local authority replaces a council leader with a directly elected Mayor. Examples of where this has happened include Bristol, Middlesbrough, Leicester, and Watford. It has been implemented in several London boroughs – most unhappily in Tower Hamlets. It does provide an opportunity to shake up complacent, monolithic councils – not least by giving a chance for independents with a strong background in business or community service. Unlike the Metro Mayors, these local authority mayors are created (and could be abolished) via a referendum. Why not allow referendums to get rid of the Metro Mayors?

Eric Pickles, was a fearless radical as Communities and Local Government Secretary. Yet before entering Government he told this site:

“I’ll have a pearl-handled revolver waiting in my drawer for the first civil servant who suggests another local government reorganisation.”

Those of us who would like to see more unitary councils and directly-elected Mayors have to persuade others in our communities. However frustrating it might be for those in Downing Street, a different approach would be unlikely to be politically acceptable. Nor would it be justified.

37 comments for: Switching to more unitary authorities and directly elected mayors must be achieved by consent

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