United we stand
24 November, 2005

Chris Leslie, Director, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle

If a martian from outer space were to land on Earth and gaze upon our current structure of local government in England (ok, improbable on so many levels), what would he see? A complex, incrementally-evolving, patchwork of districts, cities, boroughs, counties, parishes and more besides.

Not much wrong with that. Except it is illogical and inconsistent. And it is hardly the most efficient. And it is difficult for many electors to fathom. And it can make partnerships difficult and confusing. But apart from these things, is it really so bad?

I recognise that discussing “structures” is the bete noir for the modern reformer, but if the structures are wrong, the organisation is probably dysfunctional, and the service quality for the end user will often reflect this. So despite the unpopularity of the subject, I suspect the time is rapidly upon us where local government will be faced with the spectre of reorganisation, especially for ‘two-tier’ English counties and districts.

No doubt the Government will approach this gingerly at first, the memories of Banham and the fear of a backlash tempering its bravery. It does make sense for the Government to look for volunteers at first, but once this genie is out of the lamp it will be difficult to ignore.

The forward-thinking district councils (for it is the smaller units that will be made to justify themselves most) would do well to engage proactively and vigorously in this exercise if it comes, rather than dig in and pretend it’s not happening. A combination of the Gershon efficiency agenda, the need to clarify local democratic structures, and the trend towards Local Area Agreement working all suggest this.

Rather than resist, district councils should think cleverly about how unitarisation (an ugly word, but it does the trick) could work in their favour. Unitary local government has many attractions, but it must relate to true communities, to geographic and demographic realities, if it is to work. Overly-large or excessively-distant civic centres can feel almost as remote as Whitehall itself, and the virtue of district council organisation is its relative closeness to neighbourhood level.

The danger of failing to agree a local blueprint for unitary local government is that civil service mandarins will end up repeating what happened when Michael Heseltine famously flew his helicopter above disputed territories. Rather than Ministers drawing the boundaries, it is better for local knowledge to prevail.

But while unitary councils may be neat, there are pitfalls. If new localism means anything, it means devolving decision-making to the level closest to the community. Large strategic sub-regional unitary councils are dangerously far from the neighbourhood chatter. Such a shift could either accelerate the renaissance of the parish council, or it could be counteracted by designing very ‘local’ unitary authorities.

Whatever the case, now is probably a good time to buy shares in the Boundary Commission.