Local government re-organisation: the debate that goes round in circles

Catherine Staite

I do like the unitarisation debate. It has everything going for it. We’ve heard all the arguments countless times, so there are no surprises. It’s been running for so many years that it’s become a constant in a time of great uncertainty. Quite comforting really.

In 2008/9, I was part of the team that was asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the 2009 unitaries, in terms of their financial health, service performance and effective community engagement. The aim of the ‘Form and Function’ study, commissioned by DCLG was to answer the question ‘do unitaries perform better than two tier areas?’ We were asked to compare the performance of the new councils with the four, two-tier Pathfinders. Do you remember them? They argued that they could achieve all of the benefits of re-organisation without any unpleasant side effects, like change.

The proponents of unitaries at that time argued that they combined scale and scope of activities with a reasonably recognisable geography, and that claim continues to be made today. £2.9bn can be saved, apparently, according to a recent report commissioned by the County Councils Network (CCN).

The first stage of the work chronicled the progress of the unitaries before vesting day on 1st April 2009. The second stage was cancelled by Eric Pickles with his pearl-handled revolver, so we were never able to gather and analyse the data about how well the unitaries performed.

Recently, Shared Intelligence has revisited the 2009 unitaries’ question by interviewing the former leaders and chief executives. Phil Swann, in his article in Local Government Chronicle on 3rd November, has drawn the conclusion from those interviews that there are three broad factors which influence councils’ effectiveness; scale, geography and a sense of place. They are all complex concepts.

If we look at scale and geography, we see huge variations between the size of cities like Leeds, with a population of 727k and Nottingham with one of 284k. However, all is not as it seems. Nottingham is significantly ‘under-bounded’ because the city boundaries enclose a much smaller (and more deprived) area than the natural boundaries of the city, as visitor would see it.   Economic geography is not a simple concept either. Hull is also very much under-bounded and it actually shares one economic geography with a major part of the East Riding of Yorkshire, but the two councils are not renowned for their ability to co-operate, which means its under-boundedness is not merely a minor irritant, but a cause of significant inequity which has a real impact on quality of life and opportunities for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

A ‘sense of place’ is both a complex and a nebulous concept. For those who argue that county unitaries are the solution to both historic complexity and the current problems with devo deals in two tier areas, the first question is ‘which counties’? Do we prefer ceremonial, geographical or administrative counties? The CCN rather like administrative counties, understandably as that would make them the administrative unit of choice, leaving aside the obvious point that the current county councils would cease to exist as part of any unitarisation process. Shouldn’t we be a bit more imaginative? If ceremonial counties were favoured, Lincolnshire would regain North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire, currently small unitaries in which most of the major economic activity of the ‘ceremonial’ county resides. How about removing any cross- border tensions between Hull and East Riding by making them both part of North Yorkshire? The under-boundedness of Nottingham would be cured at a stroke, if it was part of a unitary, ceremonial Nottinghamshire.

At this point in any discussion about re-organisation local government officers and members tend head for the bar, muttering 1974 and 1996 to themselves or anyone who can still bear to listen.

The current structure is a nonsense, but central government has no interest in removing any of the shackles of complexity which made it hard for local government to punch above its weight and get the devolved powers it needs. This debate won’t go anywhere until local government can get better at resolving complex issues together, in a spirit of collaboration, rather than indulging in special pleading, pre-emptive strikes or intransigent unwillingness to countenance any change at all – accompanied by general unpleasantness.

The fallout from Brexit and now the US presidential election have demonstrated how easy it is to unleash damaging forces which cannot then be controlled.   We need some countervailing forces, including, leadership which is characterised by kindness, respect, fairness, humour and compromise.

Catherine Staite 02Professor Catherine Staite is Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

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