Research Project

As Tiers Go By: A collaborative future for counties and districts
29 October, 2014

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Localism think tank NLGN today called on leaders of all political parties to rule out the possibility of local government reorganisation for the next parliament.

New research, supported by PwC, shows that the spectre of unitary status is still holding back the potential for local collaboration, as local partners focus on the potential for nationally imposed reorganisation instead of focusing on the challenging business of working together.

The report, entitled As Tiers Go By: A collaborative future for counties and districts, says that if ministers and their shadows really want collaboration in the shires, then they must unequivocally rule out unitary status and instead back a new generation of policy aimed at encouraging joint working.

Counties and districts should be heavily encouraged to form combined authorities with a new duty to integrate their services to improve outcomes and reduce costs.

The research demonstrates that, while unitary status can save substantial sums of money, the process of reorganisation can be long-winded, expensive and harms performance in the short term.

While unitary status should not be ruled out forever, the report questions whether reorganisation is the right approach as councils enter the most challenging phase of a decade of austerity.
NLGN director and report author Simon Parker said:

‘Two tier local government can be cumbersome and inefficient, but this is not the right moment for a costly and disruptive process of change. Collaboration can provide a powerful alternative which is proven to deliver better outcomes and cost savings. If ministers want two tier areas to work together, they need to firmly rule out the alternatives and introduce new policy to support joint working.’

The report argues that there are three key areas of opportunity that counties and districts must work together to grasp:

  1. Growth: Staffordshire’s district deals show how counties and districts can work together to agree how city deals should play out in each locality.
  • Service redesign: Suffolk’s Lowestoft Rising project shows how all public services in a town can collaborate to better support the vulnerable.
  • Digital redesign: North Yorkshire county council’s shared CRM system with a district shows how tiers can work together to rapidly adopt new technology.It also sets out potential future models of collaboration, including a ‘virtual unitary’ model in which councils work together to pool their commissioning functions, and a ‘systems thinking’ model in which services are redesigned consensually around localities.

    Mike Wallace, director, PWC, said:

    ‘We welcome this report from NLGN, setting out a range of collaborative visions for overcoming the challenges of two tier working without going back to the drawing board. Greater two tier collaboration won’t be a panacea to the predicament that local government, and the wider public sector, finds itself in, but for counties and districts it’s a good place to start.’

    In a foreword to the report, Kent County Council leader Paul Carter welcomed the analysis. He said:

    ‘This report from NLGN is a very welcome, and very necessary, contribution to what should be a far broader debate about the significant part of the local government sector which covers half the population of England.’

Publication Date: 29 October 2014
ISBN: 978-1-909781-05-4
Authored by: Simon Parker and Claire Mansfield