New ways of working for district councils

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Anthony Mason

My primary school history teacher always taught that the shires of England were mapped out by Alfred the Great. For me, that story was confirmed by an illustration in my treasured Ladybird book on the great man (Alfred – not the teacher) that shows four burly Saxons knocking in a waymark post as they lay out the boundary pattern. I still have that book. I later learned that while the reality was much more complicated, it is essentially true that much of our shire county structure would be familiar to a returning Anglo Saxon – even if not much else would be.

And while our present pattern of local government boundaries isn’t quite so longstanding, the institutional structure of local government outside the cities and metropolitan areas in England has been much more stable than the landscape in health administration – which seems to change with every incoming Secretary of State. Of course, we’ve seen some reorganisation in the shire counties in the years since 1974, when the foundations of our present system were put into place, but much of rural England is still governed by two tiers of council – three if you count the parishes.

The relative stability of the system doesn’t prevent people talking about changing it. On the contrary, no gathering of local government officers or members would be complete without talk of the supposed delights or evils of unitary local government – especially in the bar later at night. Our counterparts in Wales and Scotland have gone down the unitary path some time ago; and for some, the crazy English mosaic of cities, unitaries, counties, boroughs and districts is an affront to rational workable local governance.

Eric Pickles isn’t among these. And while the great man is famous (or infamous) for many things, his mythical “pearl-handled revolver” ready for the first person to come into his office and propose the structural reorganisation of local government, must be one of his most repeated aphorisms. For once, he may be on to something. Recent work by the New Local Government Network points out that while there are savings to be had from “unitarising” two tier councils, there are costs involved as well. The report also makes a strong case that some of the claimed savings from reorganisation may already have been realised as district councils increasingly work in collaboration and share services and even management teams in some cases.

INLOGOV is now working with the District Councils’ Network (DCN) to explore further the case for retaining the essence of the two tier structure after the 2015 general election. This doesn’t mean no-change: rather, it recognises that structural reorganisation of itself may offer little stimulus to change. Transformation comes from adopting new and sometimes radically different ways of working and collaborating across the public and voluntary sectors rather than worrying about tiers of councils. We’re relatively early in the project and the DCN team has just issued a “call for evidence” to districts (and indeed others) to showcase new and innovative models of working – especially where there is good evidence of positive outcomes.

So now is the opportunity for those in two tier local government to map out the case for innovation and creativity in the way they work – but still set in the 1974 institutional structures. You have until January 16th 2015 to make a submission.

Perhaps my Ladybird book (price, 2/6d) can have some currency for a little while longer?

Anthony Mason

Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team

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