A tale of one city, by Peter Hetherington

9 Feb 06
Critics of local government's structure need look no further than Durham to support their case against two-tier councils. Would a unitary approach across England produce less confusion, while promoting efficiency?

10 February 2006

Critics of local government's structure need look no further than Durham to support their case against two-tier councils. Would a unitary approach across England produce less confusion, while promoting efficiency?

One city, two councils, same name. People in Durham can be forgiven for being baffled by the division of responsibility in local government. Why should they be expected to distinguish between Durham County Council and Durham City Council? The former, high on a hill overlooking the magnificent Norman and medieval centre, looks after education, social care and roads; the latter, half a mile below, cleans the streets maintained by the county, collects refuse for the county to dispose of, and handles local plans that have to chime with the transport plans set by the county. It's messy, and confusing for almost everyone.

Fifteen months ago, in a little-known subsidiary question in the Northeast devolution referendum – when plans for a regional assembly were overwhelmingly rejected – voters in Durham supported the concept of a unitary county. Not surprisingly, this has thrust the area into the centre of the growing debate over the future of two-tier local government in England, with the county council lobbying hard to be transformed into an all-purpose authority, and some of the seven local districts strongly resisting.

'If you are asking me if I think this is an efficient system, I would say categorically no,' says Ken Manton, leader of the county council, which serves a population of almost 500,000 and has been accused by the districts of arrogance and throwing its weight around. Undeterred, it has undertaken financial modelling which suggests that the cost of a reorganisation – notably redundancies, merging back-office functions and transferring council tax collection from district to county – could be recouped within three years.

Further south, communities and local government minister David Miliband has used larger Norfolk (population almost 800,000) as an example of the 'confusion, inefficiency and cost' of two-tier local government. It has one county council, seven districts and 21 market towns.

Miliband recently flagged up the case for strategic local government on one hand and grass roots governance on the other. 'We need to ask if the best relationship is between the county and the districts or between one or more unitary authorities and local neighbourhoods.'

England could be approaching the most wide-ranging shake-up of local governance since hundreds of urban and rural districts were abolished 33 years ago, along with larger self-governing county boroughs. Miliband clearly has 238 districts in his sights, complaining that people are paying over the odds for 'multiple back offices' provided by counties and districts.

Arguments for reform are gaining pace. On the ground, senior civil servants have already held a series of private briefings around England with county council chief executives as a prelude to more formal meetings between Miliband and selected counties and districts, which began in Shropshire this week.

With a white paper due in June, some insiders close to the government are talking seriously about the prospect of legislation before the next general election. At the same time, troubleshooter Sir Michael Lyons, charged with examining the role and function of councils, talks of an 'auspicious opportunity' for reform. One senior official says: 'If I were a betting man, I'd put money on a package emerging over the next year, provided Miliband stays in his present job.'

Sir Brian Briscoe, outgoing chief executive of the Local Government Association, offers this scenario: 'They could have legislation in the next session, which would start in November, which could presumably get royal assent the following summer and they could go ahead and implement on a fairly fast track – by 2008/09.'

The June white paper will flag up a unitary system for England (Scotland and Wales have had single-tier local government for ten years) and the potential for city-region governance similar to the Greater London Authority in conurbations. But its philosophical heart will be based on the Miliband mantra of 'double devolution'. He sees this as part of a deal under which big councils could be rewarded with extra responsibility and freedoms, as long as they agree to hand specific functions, from street cleaning to park maintenance, down the line to (as yet undefined) neighbourhood providers.

'We're talking about devolution, not just to the town hall – that's important, more flexibility at local government level – but also from the town or the county hall down to streets and neighbourhoods,' he said late last month. 'It's a very significant step forward and I think it will be a big driver for social justice, which is at the heart of what the government is seeking.'

Miliband is hedging his bets, not least because he has yet to bring on board some sceptical Cabinet colleagues. They are concerned not only by the potential cost of reform but also by the political fallout in areas where county councils are seen as distant and remote. So he is insisting: 'If change is to happen, it must be done in partnership with local government… so there need not be a model for the whole of England.'

Briscoe adds: 'I think he's convinced by the intellectual case for making everywhere unitary. Other ministers probably agree with that, but aren't sure about the wisdom of launching into something that just might lead to an awful lot of aggravation. So the line is: “Where there's agreement, we'll do it. Where there isn't, we might wait and see how much agreement there is. Then we'll impose it on the rest – but only when we're confident it's not going to cause us an awful lot of trouble”.'

The buzz words recited by Lyons and others are 'asymmetry' and 'flexible geometry'. This could mean 'persuading' counties such as Shropshire, one of the smaller shires with a population of only 283,000, to move towards unitary status. Others, such as the largest county of Kent (population: 1.3 million) and a clutch of southern shires, could be left until later. (Miliband's officials insist that no significance should be read into this week's meeting between the minister and Shropshire local councillors and officials.)

Whatever happens, over the year a series of initiatives could emerge. Miliband set the pace last month at the annual conference of the New Local Government Network when he tried to put his devolution agenda into perspective with another favourite mantra, 'empowerment'. This translates as larger strategic authorities and smaller town or parish councils with beefed-up powers able to 'engage' citizens on local issues and needs, such as antisocial behaviour, street cleaning and park maintenance.

Much of that philosophy, still to be fleshed out, will be enshrined in a new national neighbourhood agreement, which, Miliband says, will be a 'bedrock of commitment' from national and local government. This spring, he plans to work with the LGA, the National Association of Local Councils – representing small town and parish councils – and voluntary organisations to produce a framework that will strengthen existing community strategies and Local Area Agreements.

Despite the 8,300 parish councils and 400 town councils in England, Miliband has noted that the lowest principal tier of local government is ten times the size of the lowest tier in other countries – covering on average 150,000 people, compared with 50,000 in the US and 30,000 in Sweden.

Significantly, France, with a population around 10% bigger than England, has 36,000 communes. Germany, with 15,000 municipalities for a population a third bigger, is another. England has a mere 356 in all: 84 unitaries and metropolitan districts; 34 shire counties and 238 districts.

But let's get real. While clearly many people feel they cannot identify with the larger, anonymous authorities created after the last big UK reorganisation in 1973 – where, you might ask, is Dacorum (Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, actually) or Sedgemoor (Bridgewater, Somerset)? – there is clearly a feeling across the channel that they are overloaded with local government. That explains why, at three levels, French authorities are being urged to formally pool resources and, sometimes, merge their identities into communauté de communes in smaller areas, or parishes, communauté de'agglomération in larger ones, and communauté urbaine for bigger conurbations of more than 500,000 inhabitants. These represent emerging city-regions in cities from Lille to Lyons – and there are now about 15 of them.

City regions also form another strand in Miliband's agenda. Over the past few months, he has held eight city-region 'summits', from Tyneside to Birmingham, where he has urged authorities to come forward with proposals for a new strategic level of governance beyond the boundaries of a city. His department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, has commissioned one report on how city-regions work across Europe – particularly in France, Germany and the Netherlands (where plans for a greater-Amsterdam were rejected by voters in a referendum).

The minister is not necessarily asking putative city-regions to agree to a system of government along the exact lines of the GLA, headed by an elected mayor. He has insisted that 'one size does not fit all' and that various models – executive boards of councillors and other stakeholders, for instance – could be effective. But he is clearly frustrated by the lack of political capacity in some areas and the apparent inability of councillors to seize an opportunity offered to them. In turn, they could argue that if the 33 councils in Greater London were asked to reach a consensus on the creation of a capital-wide authority, little if anything of substance would have emerged without the legislation setting up the GLA.

But with three areas likely to figure in the forthcoming white paper – neighbourhood governance tied to 'double devolution'; an incremental reorganisation of shire counties, with the potential for some becoming full-blown unitaries; and a nudge towards city-regions – it is far from clear how Sir Michael Lyons' inquiry will fit into the bigger picture now emerging.

'This is not at all complicated for me,' Lyons insists. 'When I accepted the job, I did not think it would all stand still. It would always be complicated. Discussions with David Miliband over the expanded remit [from a narrower examination of council funding] made it clear to me he would be publishing a white paper during the period of my work. You can argue now that you might do things in a different order, but they are done the way they are done because ministers, particularly, see the legislative window here, which is the thing that drives them.'

Lyons says he'll be publishing a series of 'think pieces' in April, intended to contribute to the 'closing stages' of the white paper preparation. By December, he'll produce a definitive report. 'I will reach what conclusions I reach and they will or won't fit with David [Miliband's] thinking.'

So all sweetness, if not light? Certainly, with events proceeding at such a pace, it is sometimes difficult to gauge where one agenda ends and another begins. Much depends on Tony Blair's forthcoming reshuffle. If Miliband, New Labour's coming-man, remains in his post, we can expect reform to stay high on the agenda – and considerable horse-trading between departments. For it's an open secret that the minister would like a significant reconfiguration of services at the neighbourhood/community level, with perhaps either new structures or existing authorities taking over primary care commissioning functions from the NHS.

In the meantime, however, smaller districts can see the writing on the wall. At Teesdale in County Durham, the country's smallest district– serving 24,500 people, with an annual budget of under £4m – council leader Ken Robinson, a retired teacher, thinks its days are numbered. With the authority advertising for a new chief executive, he fears that the current uncertainty might limit the field considerably. 'It's not the best of times,' he sighs. Not for Teesdale, anyway. But big brother Durham is bullish.

Peter Hetherington writes on community affairs and regeneration


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