Those who have regular dealings with local government will have an opinion on how it can be improved, streamlined or completely reformed. There is no denying that there is a need for things to change if local authorities are going to adapt to overcome present and future challenges, and in some cases – survive. But how each Authority is set to change will undoubtedly be unique to the set of circumstances they find themselves in, suggesting a blanket one size fits all approach to reform will not be successful and that a fundamental understanding of how local authorities work is required.
A common feature of reforming local government is to merge several existing smaller authorities into a larger unitaries, similar to the formation of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council in 2019. They are not the only ones though, a new Buckinghamshire Council came into effect in April this year for the whole county, and Essex County Council may be on borrowed time with some districts there seeking unitary status. But what are the main motivations for Authorities to seek local government reform?
The simple answer is money. The strain on all public services since the financial crash of 2008 has been reported in the news almost daily. As a Generation Z baby myself I cannot recall the term ‘well funded’ ever being mentioned when talking about the finances of public services. With pressures particularly acute in almost all authorities (but especially smaller districts and those with social care responsibilities) merging can present a greater ability to save money and deliver greater value for what is spent.
However, the combining of multiple officer workforces and culture, with different ways of working, can be a massive challenge and there is no easy solution. It can lead to years of difficulties which has a massive impact on staff members and residents. And although merging may lead to better bottom lines does it create better value for the taxpayer? The evidence is patchy.
The two-tier system of Counties and Districts has been known to cause tension due to different priorities. Especially in a world where counties have social care responsibilities (demand led budgets) are seeking to push more and more into districts. There is a growing and generally unseen powers struggle between some Districts around who will take the lead when a new unitary is formed. However, there are struggles within the existing small unitary authorities that are dealing with funding and the controversy associated with going unitary – loss of local democracy, resistance from districts, difference in opinion about which authorities should combine. For example, in Oxfordshire there has been an argument from the districts for three unitary authorities – West Oxfordshire and Cherwell, Oxford City, and Vale of White Horse and South Oxfordshire – while the County wants there just to be one (amongst other options!). As discussed last week in Surrey there is an argument for Unitaries also, but it is clear that this will be far from simple.
There is definitely an appetite to remove the District and County structure in favour of Unitaries, especially with the Government pushing a devolution agenda. For example, when authorities in Cornwall merged to create a single unitary Cornwall Council, it is the only area in the country to have been granted a non-mayoral or combined authority dependent devolution agreement. This model could create a blueprint for other large rural areas such a Cumbria. But is more power for Local Authorities better when so many are struggling with decisions and power they have now? This leads some into conversations about the capability of councillors who make these decisions, their qualifications and political agenda all have serious implications. It’s a dark road to go down but may be needed to help bring reform.
It is likely that Central Government will be most receptive to working with areas that have well thought out, considered and supported proposals. Cratus is here to help and support local government through these changes and ensure that local government changes for the better.