England expects …
22 April, 2005

Gerry Stoker, NLGN Trustee & University of Manchester
Public Servant

The proudest boast of local government in the UK today is that it is better run than it was when Labour first came to office in 1997. Current scores in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment tables show that most of local government is managed by able and competent politicians and officials; and those that scored poorly are often making Herculean efforts to do something about it. At the same time, local government has had significant real investment – although much of that has gone on education and social services. Overall by 2008 there will have been a 30% real increase in council spending and new prudential capital spending systems are offering valuable new freedoms.

Standing as we are in the midst of a general election campaign, the sensible conclusion might be to leave local government alone and let the steady progress that has been made continue. Instead however, it may be more fruitful to think about further big change, and contemplate a major reorganisation. Some may argue that such things divert time and energy from delivery and often do not achieve their stated objectives. But while that can be true (the 1990s saw a fairly mindless example), reorganisation can be done in more purposeful ways.

Six roles are central to my vision of the future of local government.

The first would be transport and mobility, with local authorities in a position to ensure effective public and private transport management. Second, they would be there to help create the conditions for your employability through child care, training programmes and economic regeneration. Third, councils would ensure your safety, defend you from crime, protect you in times of emergency and help to see that justice was done in your community. Fourth, local government would manage your local environment: its everyday maintenance, physical development and long-term ecological health. Fifth, councils would be there to give the best start to children in your community and help you and your family maintain a healthy lifestyle. Finally, and crucially, they would help maintain the cohesiveness of your community.

These roles are appropriate to our new century and would command the attention of the public. To deliver them, we need a local government system that is both more strategic and more local.

Short term measures could be tried. In the long run however, a full-scale reorganisation is necessary, built around the ‘super-sizing’ of cities, towns and counties; in tandem with genuine community-level neighbourhood governance. It is in this light that the New Local Government Network has launched a City Regions Commission, while at the same time working hard on the practicalities of neighbourhood governance. Big issues and challenges need to be met if we are to raise our vision of local government above the humdrum.

The basic idea of the city region model of governance is to build around a core city or set of towns. The outer boundary of the defined area might refer to river basins, travel to work areas and economic connections, or via a focus on more cultural and political factors. A major issue is that some boundaries would work better in some parts of the UK than others. So a key question to address is what should be done for those parts of the country that fall outside a city region – not just our major counties, such as Kent and Devon, but areas such as the urban East Midlands, where there is no natural ‘centre’. The appropriate response would be to design a system suited to our varied geography and socio-economic structures. What works for London to create greater strategic capacity will not be the same as what is right for Cornwall. We need some strong principles to drive reorganisation, but with much scope for local choice.

So how do you build a city region? A simple option might be to use the previous structures of metropolitan counties and create ad hoc over-arching arrangements at that level. While attractive in that it would build on some existing practice, this does not provide a clear base for developing a broader solution. It would therefore struggle to attract public support, and so more imaginative options need to be considered.

You could have areas premised on journey to work, leisure and shopping patterns; although the scale of these would be rather big. With Manchester, for example, such a city region might stretch way beyond the boundaries of the existing Greater Manchester conurbation to incorporate parts of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire, and as inconceivable as it may sound some parts of Yorkshire!

One further option worth considering could be to ‘super-size’ around our cities, towns and counties – levels of territory that actually now mean something to most people. The concept of living in Liverpool stretches beyond those who reside in the immediate boundaries of that city; as does the idea of living in Lancashire stretch beyond its established boundaries as a county. It might be possible therefore to utilise this sense of identity in various localities.

In many respects, this is an English dilemma. After the rejection late last year by North East voters for a regional assembly, people need to be offered something fundamentally different to suit the circumstances of England rather than a pale shadow of what was given to Wales or Scotland. Local government built around city regions and neighbourhoods with powerful new functions and purposes could yet provide a devolution designed for England.