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Its big, but its not clever, by George Jones and John Stewart

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09 December 2005

Westminster is at it again, proposing 'super councils' that will rapidly gobble up smaller ones. George Jones and John Stewart reckon something fishy is going on

Despite New Labour's apparent conversion to 'neighbourhood government', the talk in town and county halls across the UK is of 'super councils'. Ministers believe that bigger is better, and they are starting to use the dreaded 'R' word again. Reorganisation is back in fashion. But it would be a costly distortion of the energies and resources of both central and local government.

It is clear that the old technocratic urge for bigger councils still throbs in central government, and in parts of local government. While the 2004 referendum in the English Northeast was a setback for those wanting to impose standard regions, appointed regional quangos continue to suck up functions from local authorities. Champions of regionalism are also promoting a reorganisation based on city regions, forgetting that the city regions of the 1974 reorganisation, such as Avon and the metropolitan counties, were the least-accepted parts of the new structure.

In Northern Ireland, reorganisation is a done deal. Secretary of State Peter Hain announced last month that the 26 districts would be reduced to seven super councils by 2009. How long before the rest of the UK follows?

Communities and local government minister David Miliband found his grand plans for a reorganisation in England leaked to the Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago. He argues that the creation of larger councils, through the abolition of either counties or districts, will enable local government to play a 'more strategic role'. This approach chimes neatly with Home Office plans to reduce the 43 police forces in England to as few as 12.

No announcements have been made in Scotland, but Finance Minister Tom McCabe has frequently questioned the need for 32 council chief executives and 32 finance directors north of the border. A recent debate run by Public Finance showed that Scotland's finance directors think rationalisation is 'inevitable'.

In Wales, there is currently a review of local service delivery, led by Sir Jeremy Beecham, the vice-chair of the Local Government Association. Few in the principality believe that Beecham won't recommend a slimmed-down system of local government.

Compared with the rest of Europe, British councils are already jumbo-sized and fail to reflect a sense of community. In particular, some English districts are artificial constructs, whose names reflect no physical place that citizens know, combining towns that elsewhere in Europe would be councils in their own right.

UK local government since the nineteenth century has been regarded by central elites more as an instrument for the delivery of services than as the political government of a local community. Successive reorganisations into ever-bigger local authorities were driven by the technocratic assumption that bigger means more efficient. On the Continent, the notion of local government as the community governing itself and shaping the development of a locality has been stronger, helping to preserve smaller local authorities.

Previous reorganisations in Britain were moulded more by the technical demands of service providers than by the requirements of residents. Reorganisers forget there are diseconomies as well as economies of scale, as communications become more complex as size grows and responsiveness to consumers is diminished. Producer efficiency is enhanced at the expense of consumer efficiency.

But the services provided on the Continent often appear better, because they are more responsive to local needs and conditions and evoke considerable public satisfaction. Mainland Europeans have found ways of combining small-scale community local government with larger-scale arrangements for delivery. They have recognised that local authorities do not always have to provide services themselves. They can use other institutions, such as central government outposts, or other, bigger local authorities, or consortiums of local authorities, or private-sector firms, or voluntary bodies, or combinations of them all.

Some friends of local authorities argue that a cut in numbers will mean stronger local government, better able to stand up to central government. But we have strong doubts about this. It is easier for a 'superior' to control a small number of entities. If there are many local authorities, there are more checks and balances. Power will not be spread uniformly, but jumbled up among councils of varying sizes, making it difficult for central government to get a grip on them.

Fewer and bigger local authorities is what central government has long wanted, to suit its convenience. Departmental evidence to the Redcliffe-Maud Royal Commission on Local Government in the 1960s presented strangely unanimous recommendations in favour of about 40 unitary councils in England. Their assumption was that central government could then call the leaders of these authorities into one room, reach an agreement and more effectively control them than if they had to deal with a few hundred.

Whitehall today would like about 40 city regions or about eight standard regions. Standard regions are artificial constructs, devised by central civil servants for their convenience, to make their jobs more manageable and to enable central government to get closer to the localities.

But local government, as an expression of representative democracy, should be based on communities – villages, towns, cities and counties. Councils clearly representing their communities and drawing strength from citizens who feel a loyalty to their areas will be more confident in expressing their views of what should happen in their localities. Central government will then find it difficult politically to resist such widely based views.

Communities come in various sizes. There is no right size for a community, or for a local authority, just as there is no right size for a nation state. Some local authorities will be very large – larger than many nation states or provinces in federal states – and some very small, as in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. They do not all have to be doing the same thing, nor delivering what they do through their own staff. Here the distinction between securing the provision of something and actually providing it is crucial. The former is the appropriate role of a democratically elected local authority, while all sorts of institutions, public and private, can actually be providing.

Neighbourhoods cannot be the basis for local government. They are sub-local entities of towns, cities and counties. They cannot generate a broad local public interest, deciding priorities across a range of concerns and matching local resources to local aspirations, nor provide spaces in which different groups can explore problems, reaching across social and ethnic divides. They can have a useful role in consultation, and perform a few limited functions, but not as the main basis for local governing bodies.

Sizeism needs to be resisted. Size is irrelevant, except perhaps for the pay of chief officers. Research in the 1990s by the Greater London Group of the London School of Economics into the relationship between size and efficiency and effectiveness concluded there was no correlation. Although Comprehensive Performance Assessments tend to give higher scores to counties than to districts, that could reflect an unconscious bias in favour of large authorities.

What determines whether a local authority is effective and efficient is more the quality of its political leadership and of its officers than its size.

Fewer and bigger local authorities will inevitably lead to a reduction in the number of councillors. Already British local government, compared with the rest of Europe, suffers from a democratic deficit of too few councillors in relation to the population. The role of councillor has recently become more time-consuming, with the tasks of community leadership and overview and scrutiny replacing traditional committee activities.

Fewer and bigger authorities would diminish representation and the influence of elected representatives. They would damage local democracy.

George Jones is emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics and John Stewart is emeritus professor of local government at the University of Birmingham

PFdec2005

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