A persistent feature of local public administration in England has been the use of different definitions of geographical areas for different functions of government. Elected local authorities use one set of boundaries; un-elected health authorities another; Local Enterprise Partnerships another again. Centrally-driven initiatives, such as the Work Programme or Community Rehabilitation Companies, use boundaries based on those of local authorities but they differ from one another. Each set of boundary patterns has some commonalities with every other set, but this is as much chance as intention.
This diversity reflects two connected features of English political culture. One is that, as Brian Hogwood’s Mapping the Regions noted in 1996, regional and local government structures in England have always been concerned with the delivery of functions rather than the management of territory. The purpose of boundaries is purely to define efficient administrative units. The other is that, with a small number of exceptions, England contains very few localities that display either consensus over boundaries or a distinct sense of local identity.
Debate on English sub-national governance have occasionally proposed that boundaries should be reformed so that they are more coterminous – i.e. that local bodies should, wherever possible, adopt the same boundaries as one another. In the spirit noted above, this idea is presented as a route to improved public administration. Coterminosity is not a term that attracts affection: the Local Government Association included it on a list of ‘banned jargon’ in 2008. But it plays a significant, sometimes overlooked, part in proposals to improve local administration.
Many recent think-tank reports claim in passing that local public services would benefit if the agencies delivering them used the same boundaries. Examples include the IPPR’s Rebooting Devolution; the IfG report Joining Up Public Services around local, citizen needs, which refers to “misaligned geographies”; Reform’s Vive la devolution; ResPublica’s Devo 2.0: the case for counties; and an LSE report on city-region devolution in England. The implication is that this makes partnership working easier and more efficient – and critically, that it improves accountability. That concern can be seen in the Government’s proposal to align local authority and Local Enterprise Partnership boundaries in a 2018 consultation paper.
It seems intuitive that public services would function more effectively, and fragmentation between them would be reduced, if they covered the same geographical area. But there is actually little definitive research evidence about the effect of coterminous or non-coterminous boundaries on the economy or efficiency of public administration. This may partly explain why there has never been a consistent drive to harmonise administrative units in England.
The challenges of change
Altering local boundaries to align with one another would be time-consuming. First, local actors would have to agree on a common boundary. This might be more challenging than one might expect. This is visible from an interactive map produced by the National Audit Office in late 2017. In some of the examples in that map, different boundaries used by different services are simply historical accidents. But in others, there may be valid criteria – based on scale, user populations, or geographies – underlying the differences. As an example, most bodies operating in Greater Manchester use the same boundaries; but the NHS Clinical Commissioning Group boundaries include Glossop, from the High Peak district of Derbyshire. The town is far closer geographically to the Manchester conurbation than to other towns in Derbyshire, and is surrounded by sparsely-populated countryside.
There is, again, an intuitive logic to boundaries that incorporate neighbouring urban areas in preference to following historical boundaries. The idea that boundaries should reflect the pattern of settlement is supported by a 2016 report from Shared Intelligence, Learning the Lessons from Local Government Reorganisation. This report suggested that ‘underbounded’ cities, where parts of a continuous urban area are located within a separate authority, face particular service delivery challenges. The implication is that future redesigns should avoid or correct these difficulties.
But the strength of feeling concerning historic boundaries should not be underestimated. Local authority reorganisations in England have frequently attracted legal action to prevent mergers. Public opinion research carried out as part of the 1992-5 restructuring in England found strong support for the return of historical boundaries in certain parts of England.
The Shared Intelligence report also identified issues relating to scale. In English local government, this normally relates to the population covered by an administrative unit, and the economies of scale in service delivery that can be achieved as a result. Widely-differing scales are used for local units in England. For instance, there are 20 Work Programme contracts (employment support) and 16 Community Rehabilitation Companies (probation). Could these functions operate at, for instance, the scale of county councils and urban authorities (implying some 40 units)?
Low-profile boundaries can be aligned more easily. During the 2000s, a number of executive agencies altered their boundaries to align with those of the standard regions used at the time. Examples include Natural England, the Highways Agency, the Housing Corporation, and the Arts Council. Staff were frequently relocated to the same city or office as a result. More recently, in 2014 the Williams Commission recommended better alignment of various public body boundaries as one element of a wider programme of local government reform in Wales.
Joining up: a victory for place?
Aligning local boundaries often appears as one element of an enthusiasm for ‘joined up government’. This has enjoyed periods of popularity in the last 30 years. In a nutshell, it implies reversing the practice of governance noted by Brian Hogwood’s 1996 report: focusing on the governance of a ‘territory’ rather than individual functions of government. There have been occasional steps in this direction: the most recent example was the community budget programmes (later ‘Our Place!’) piloted by the Coalition government, which followed the similar ‘Total Place’ programme under the 2007-10 Labour government. These initiatives were lauded but have left little mark on the governance or local geographies of England. Any comprehensive move of this kind would need to address the functionalism and lack of ‘local identity’ that underpins the governance of England.
Mark Sandford is a senior research analyst in the House of Commons Library, specialising in local government and devolution within England. He has published a number of recent papers and blogs on local government finance and English devolution. Previously he was a research fellow at the Constitution Unit, University College London (2000-05) and head of research at the Electoral Commission (2006-07).
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.