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Town Centres First – Making Local Government Mergers Work


By Chris Roberts, Senior Associate

This week I spent some downtime in the north of England. I based myself in one town and travelled around.

My base, call it North Bay, is a town with a rich history. Its periphery has houses of superb stone and classic architecture, almost all of which remain in single household ownership.

The town itself is rather run down. The word which kept coming to mind was grimy. It looked like it needed a good clean and some TLC.

The streets would have benefited from having years of grime and seagull droppings steam cleaned away, although my t-shirt made one contribution to keeping the street clean from this source. In the same vein, the street furniture would have benefited from someone with a paint brush to smarten it up.

The shops were largely independent, with the lower category of shopping chains alongside. However, there were many shuttered shops, and in some cases, shop fronts had been converted into residential town houses, in the middle of a long High Street.

There seemed little in the way of living above the shop and much potential accommodation otherwise going to waste. Yet I heard several conversations of people in pubs asking about affordable places to rent.

What North Bay needed above all was a good clean, basic maintenance and an effective High Street policy.

But whose responsibility is this?

Almost a decade ago, North Bay lost its local council. It was subsumed into a larger county-based authority. This was, no doubt, driven by the loss of income caused by the first Osborne austerity budget in 2010 which drove many councils to the point of bankruptcy.

Mergers became the order of the day; a trend which is still happening, and which will continue to occur for another decade at least. I’m not against this, far from it. The UK has far too many tiers of local government and we could start with sweeping away all parish councils. I’m a huge fan of unitary local government everywhere. But size matters when it comes to being effective in local government.

No government has touched local government reorganisation for almost 50 years. The Heath government got badly burned but pushed through reforms in 1974, breaking up Yorkshire; placing industrial Lancashire into Greater Manchester to make Lancashire go Tory (not very successful), abolishing Cumberland and Westmoreland and creating new, much hated and short-lived authorities which they called Cleveland and Avon.

Today, government prefers mergers which are locally led, and provided ministers can reassure themselves that new unitary authorities can cope with children’s social care and protection, many are waved through.

Early mergers have swung both ways. In Cheshire, the district councils banded together to abolish their county council. We now have a Cheshire West and Chester and a Cheshire East. Alternatively, Wiltshire County Council swallowed all its districts, bar Swindon.

Different localities need different solutions but in allowing finance, child protection and often the prejudices of MPs alone to drive the solution, government is potentially failing to address the other essential requirement of local government, as place-makers, shapers and maintainers.

North Bay was an interesting observation. It is not, in any classic sense, a failing town. But nor is it thriving, and no one is caring for it.

It faces a future where it becomes increasingly run down and unloved. There is little, if any, external private investment and whatever improvements come will almost certainly need a public sector lead.

The main private sector jobs come from retail, so the High Street matters hugely. The decline of the town will squeeze unemployment and create a continuing spiral of decay.

Town Centres are the places many of us identify with. Whether we are in Northallerton, Northampton or indeed, North Bay.

When our town centres thrive, we feel a sense of civic pride. When left to decline, the sense of abandonment and that no one cares festers and gradually grows to anger.

None of this is an argument to resist on-line shopping and the essential reassessment of our Town Centres. It is merely to say that we need to avoid the political abandonment of our towns by hastily convened local government mergers which will leave the North Bays of our country unsupported and without the democratic policy leadership they are going to need.

Decline means fewer jobs, more unemployment and a slide towards political extremism.
The good news is we have yet to reach that point.

In North Bay there is a pub proudly advertising on its street sign, “Beer as cold as Priti Patel’s heart'”.

But how long before we tell those Ukrainians we can’t afford them because they’ve taken one of the fewer jobs in a declining town like North Bay? We turned away Jews from Germany in the 1930s, after all.

I do fear for the North Bays of our country and for the people living there. The solution cannot be that all the young people leave or get on their bikes to quote Norman Tebbit’s 1980s solution to government driven economic decline. That lead to overheating and housing shortages in the south-east and did nothing to regenerate towns like North Bay.

Only confident city-led regeneration, most clearly evidenced in Manchester but seen elsewhere also, lifted those places out of the economic depression of the 1980s.

The towns of England need similar local democratic champions to provide the economic policy leadership which has seen many of our cities regenerate.

North Bay needed a council reorganisation which did not make it one of perhaps a dozen similar towns which now fall under the new authority’s auspices.

Because it is not yet failing, North Bay will not get the attention it needs now, until its problems have become more desperate. This is a major failing in the merging of local government.

In our early days planning the regeneration of Greenwich, we had a saying as we inherited and observed the flight of private investment, the shuttering of the shops in our town centres and even the abandonment of the town by the local university.

“The only organisation which cannot walk away from Greenwich, is Greenwich Council”.

That saying and the knowledge that it was rooted in the absolute truth, drove us for the next 25 years.

North Bay and so many other towns in our country, need to same local government champions to lift them to meet the challenges they face.

“Our World is Local”, as we say at Cratus. Our towns and the people who inhabit them will be better served if we remember this in the rush towards more local government mergers.

Town Centres First - Making Local Government Mergers Work