Forward Thinking
12 May, 2005

Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle

Labour’s election manifesto contained many ideas which will affect the future of local government, and a few issues, such as council tax, which were kicked into the long grass for later. But for many in our sector one question remained completely unaddressed: what, if anything, will the Government do about local government re-organisation?

This is perhaps one of the thorniest issues in local government. It raises hackles within both counties and districts – while all can see the benefits of unitary status, some would inevitably be losers. Any government tackling this issue would end up abolishing councils led by its own party, and risk re-drawing the political map.

In addition to the political difficulties, there also looms the spectre of lengthy, distracting and expensive re-organisation. There are no easy answers to the question of what constitutes a reasonable sized council and an institution with which citizens can identify. Inevitable costs are involved, at a time when efficiency savings are paramount; as are risks to performance and improvement as attention is re-directed to establishing new organisations. With all the difficulties, you can understand why all the political parties avoided the question altogether.

I am not necessarily suggesting that we need to see an immediate move to unitary local government (in fact I believe there are ways two tiers can work effectively together). But I ask two things.

Firstly, that the Government acknowledges that many of its partnership-driven policies for local government are increasingly difficult to deliver in a two tier system. Co-ordination between county and district LSPs, overarching Local Area Agreements and Public Service Boards and even the delivery of LPSA targets, can be time consuming and challenging, leaving many feeling that the system works against them. There are also many questions about how possible future policies, for example city regions, would work in a two tier model. At some point, such problems will need addressing.

More importantly however, the Government should make its position and intentions clear. Far more damaging than the structural problems of two tier is the ongoing uncertainty. Councils can read the signs and know the difficulties of making it work in practice, but essentially their planning for the future is like astrological guess work.

This uncertainty is undermining many councils’ best efforts to develop new ways of working, for example through partnerships and devolved structures. Initiatives such as area working and joint commissioning and delivery of services, are interpreted with a unitary-positioning subtext. Counties are perceived as angling to become unitaries; districts are forming alliances with other districts. And with no clear message from government, the problem is to some extent beyond councils’ control.

Government should realise the time and energy already being wasted up and down the country by council positioning for something which may not actually happen in the next 5 years. A bit of clarity could make two tier local government work so much better.