Reorganisation for no good reason

29 Aug 08
PETER HETHERINGTON | Far away from the Westminster village, seemingly out of reach of a questioning media, a rather arbitrary reorganisation of English local government is under way.

Far away from the Westminster village, seemingly out of reach of a questioning media, a rather arbitrary reorganisation of English local government is under way.

It is being pushed through in the name of efficiency, amid claims from the Department for Communities and Local Government of ‘streamlined and improved delivery’, not to mention ‘savings’ of tens of millions of pounds, but it is proving to be a messy business.

Exactly why the Brown government agreed to go ahead with this partial exercise in seven areas, when the Treasury has voiced misgivings about the assumed economies, is a mystery to many. Having one ‘big bang’ by abolishing what remains of the current two-tier system, however costly and disruptive, might have carried some logic and consistency.

For example, the 238 district authorities and 34 county councils in England could have been swept away to create a network of new, all-purpose unitaries.

But this ad hoc approach, allowing what ministers called a small ‘window of opportunity’ for a limited number of unitary ‘bids’, has neither rhyme nor reason.

Nine new authorities are being created in the seven areas. Elections have already been held for new councils in Northumberland, County Durham, Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester. Next May, voters in Cornwall, Shropshire, Wiltshire, Bedford, and Central Bedfordshire go to the polls.

If my own county — Northumberland — is anything to go by, ministers are in denial about the impact and costs of the exercise. This is certainly the view of Michael Chisholm, a former member of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. Writing in Public Finance in May, he said the government was selective and inconsistent in its use of evidence to justify reorganisation.

A key complaint is that the government appears to have accepted, without challenge, figures on projected savings put forward by unitary bidders to justify single-tier local government.

A quick reading of the local press underlines this complaint. Take the admirable weekly paper in my area, which has campaigned against the new structure, which was also opposed by all the county’s MPs. Recently it pointed out that rather than purported ‘savings’ of £17m, the new unitary council — due to take over in May — is already facing a ‘mammoth black hole’ deficit of £55m.

Worse, in Northumberland the government has ignored public opinion. In a 2004 referendum, when plans for an elected Northeast assembly were rejected, electors were asked their views on unitary local government in a subsidiary question.

They overwhelmingly rejected an all-Northumberland council, opting for the county to be split in two between its rural heartland and its urban southeast. The government ploughed ahead regardless.

Most councillors backing unitary status have either been deselected by their local parties or have lost their seats. The chief executive, another backer, left.

In all the affected areas, the true costs of this misguided exercise are slowly being revealed, not least the price of redundancies: Wiltshire alone is setting aside £7m for the purpose.

Several questions need to be asked. First, did no one heed the warnings of those involved in another partial reorganisation in the early 1990s, when 46 unitaries were established and counties — notably Berkshire — were abolished while, illogically for many, tiny Rutland was resurrected? Then, as now, costs wildly exceeded expectations and new authorities struggled to create a unified structure.

Second, why did ministers not press for a more cost-effective option of improved service delivery, working in partnership, say, with the Local Government Association, by urging more councils in two-tier areas to share back-office functions, IT systems, call centres and front offices?

This would present people with a one-stop shop in local government while allowing districts to maintain and reinforce their links with the public, leaving the counties as strategic authorities running schools, highways and, where appropriate, social care. Who knows? Perhaps mergers might have followed, provided genuine economies of scale became evident.

Third, unless we are careful, these new structures — whatever Communities Secretary Hazel Blears might say about handing more power to parish and town councils — are likely to take local government further from the people in some areas.

As for me? I’d just like the clogged drains in my patch cleaned out, the pot-holed roads and pavements repaired, the streets swept, the grass on open spaces cut — simple maintenance that tells me that at least I’m getting a basic service for my hefty council tax. I suspect millions of other people want the same. I’m not holding my breath.

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