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“[This country] needs strong, effective, empowered local authorities which can weather continued austerity and build local democratic structures fit for future generations. I do not believe that our local authorities, as currently constituted, can fully play this role; and I am not alone.”
Those were the words of Welsh local government secretary Alun Davies in March, as he launched a consultation to cut the number of councils from 22 to 10. Citing “limited options to ensuring the future sustainability of local services” due to budget cuts, Mr Davies said “the next step must be game-changing”.
While obviously aimed at councils in Wales, Mr Davies’ words will surely have resonated across the border in England.
The precariousness of councils’ finances has already caused some local authorities to start undergoing change, either through free will (Dorset) or imposition (Northamptonshire).
At the inaugural Chamberlain Lecture at London’s BT Tower last night Lord Heseltine, one of the biggest proponents of change, gave a speech outlining his vision to essentially implement the recommendations contained in the Redcliffe-Maud Report in full.
The former deputy prime minister wants to reduce the number of councils covering the country to about 60, mostly based on county boundaries as “most people know which county they live in” and have an affinity with it (that will have no doubt pleased the County Councils Network and disconcert the District Councils’ Network).
“I would get rid of the districts in England like I did in Scotland and Wales [in the 1990s]. I find it amazing people are talking about the shortage of cash in local government and yet we are sustaining the apparatus of hundreds of local authorities we don’t need,” said Lord Heseltine.
In addition to this Lord Heseltine said he would install “a directly elected mayor in each one” of the new unitary councils. These mayors would each earn about £120,000 a year to ensure the role attracted high calibre candidates, he added.
This is not the first time these views have been aired by Lord Heseltine. Having been involved in or overseen some form of local government reorganisation in each decade since the 1970s, Lord Heseltine - nicknamed Tarzan after he seized the Commons’ mace and held it over his head during a heated debate - is undoubtedly a politician who has had a significant impact on the way the country is run today. Looking at the way he delivered his speech and responded to questions from the audience last night showed he still has plenty of passion and ideas about the way the country could be run in the future too.
But what would it take for his vision to come to fruition, the Local Government Association’s Conservative group leader David Simmonds asked.
“It would need a government with a significant majority that could put a friendly arm around its rebels and say ‘you won’t win this one’. We all know it needs to be done,” said Lord Heseltine.
A significant majority is something Theresa May does not have the luxury of right now, yet the appetite for reorganisation clearly remains - housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire recently told LGC there is “scope” for creating more unitary councils.
What advice would Lord Heseltine give Mr Brokenshire should the new secretary of state require it, asked Martin Tett (Con), leader of Buckinghamshire CC – itself part of plans to reorganise the county.
“Your key question is: will he call me in?,” Lord Heseltine asked rhetorically.
Having served as a special adviser to the government, particularly on devolution, Lord Heseltine was sacked by Theresa May in March 2017 following a falling out over Brexit.
“The prime minister sacked me a few months ago,” said Lord Heseltine. “I would have thought it unlikely [Mr Brokenshire will ask him for advice] but anything is possible.”
While the government is seemingly in favour of cutting the number of councils, local government minister Rishi Sunak recently told LGC the government is “not going to go out and force people to do anything”. This means anything is possible and while this is the case, it will only serve to stoke the rumours and rows about local government reorganisation across the country.
The existential crisis continues.
By David Paine, acting news editor