What to consider when merging councils

4 Apr 18

With Sajid Javid paving the way for a small number of local authority restructures, the debate on council mergers has arisen once more. 

Solace’s Piali Das Gupta here gives a few guiding principles for any local authority merger being considered.

council merger


About a decade ago, Eric Pickles (now Sir Eric) pronounced that he would have a “pearl-handled revolver” waiting in his drawer for the first official who suggested another local government reorganisation.

His successors to the role of secretary of state for communities and local government had better hope that the drawer is firmly locked as they have certainly played a part in reviving the unitarisation debate.

But now that the debate is live again, it is worth taking a step back to consider both sides.

Within Solace, we have members who sit across the whole continuum of views on and experience of unitarisation.

Many of our members still bear the scars from 2009, in particular, regardless of how their councils emerged from the process.

There is no denying that this can be a polarising issue.

Some recent commentators have observed that given the condition of public finances, it is inevitable that a rationalisation of the state in some form is being considered.

Others have warned that it would be ill-advised to see unitarisation as an antidote to austerity.

Still others have cautioned that a focus on local government structure rather than culture will not lead to the real change that is needed to secure better public services and outcomes.  

Woolly as it may sound, there is genuine merit to all of these arguments.

Proponents point to the significant savings that newly-created unitaries have been able to achieve by rationalising staff and assets.

Some argue that simplifying the complex structure of local government is a desirable end in itself, noting the confusion that can exist in the minds of citizens in two-tier areas about who does what and, more importantly, who they should contact if they need a particular service.  

In any kind of merger, the parties involved are never taking on solely each other’s assets, but also their liabilities and risks, which they are not necessarily better-placed to manage simply by virtue of being bigger.  

Given the unprecedented level of uncertainty that local government is now facing, there is also potentially an argument to be made that joining up structurally could help councils deal with the higher levels of risk they will also be facing.

That argument can also be used against unitarisation, however.  

In any kind of merger, the parties involved are never taking on solely each other’s assets, but also their liabilities and risks, which they are not necessarily better-placed to manage simply by virtue of being bigger.  

They also point to evidence that unitarisation has not often generated immediate savings, once transitional costs such as redundancy payments are taken into account.

Critics also point out that there is also a more fundamental risk that people will feel more removed from local decision-making if the units of democracy are bigger.  

What I’ve set out above are fairly crude, reductivist arguments that offer a flavour of the debate, but in no way do justice to the detailed analysis and business cases that underpin local proposals and discussions.  

Although individual Solace members will have their own views on the reorganisation question based on their own experiences, the general consensus is that there is no black and white answer here.

What our members also seem to have in common is a sense of the principles that should be guiding future discussions.  

These include:

  • Any unitary proposals should truly be locally-driven, voluntary and bottom-up. Experience has repeatedly shown that top-down imposition of structures are rarely effective or sustainable.
  • Consideration of proposals should focus on outcomes. A new structure is not an outcome, but merely a means to an end. The hurdle that any proposal should have to pass is whether it is, on balance, likely to lead to better public service outcomes and/or governance.
  • Ministers need to be clear and transparent about ‘rules of the game’ and what factors have informed their decisions, whether or not proposals get the green light.  This principle is particularly important for public confidence when there is more than one proposal covering an area, as we have started to see.
  • The civil service has to create capacity to do the work and keep things moving.  Time and again, we hear of the frustration of local leaders when they have invested the time and resources to prepare bids, only to be left in limbo by Whitehall for months on end.
  • There are opportunities that can come from simply having the discussion, whether or not any formal steps are ever taken, but this requires shared leadership across elected members and senior officers.  

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