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Sajid Javid has often talked big, especially on the issue of housebuilding. But the housing and communities secretary’s ability to turn ambition into action has been severely constrained by the government’s Brexit-induced paralysis, Theresa May’s natural caution and, latterly, by the Conservatives’ lack of a parliamentary majority.
However, today he finally took the sort of momentous decision that could result in him leaving a significant legacy from his time at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.
Mr Javid announced that he would endorse the reorganisation of the historic county of Dorset into two unitary councils – one covering the area overseen by Bournemouth BC, Borough of Poole Council and Christchurch BC, and the other covering the rump of Dorset CC and the county’s five other districts.
In a written parliamentary statement, Mr Javid said: “I am satisfied that these new councils are likely to improve local government and service delivery in their areas, generating savings, increasing financial resilience, facilitating a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges, and sustaining good local services. I am also satisfied that across Dorset as a whole there is a good deal of local support for these new councils, and that the area of each council is a credible geography.”
If ever there was a reorganisation that shows a good deal of local support then it is this one. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas but most of the councils within Dorset’s historic boundaries have effectively sanctioned their own demise for the perceived common good of service users and local taxpayers. Only Christchurch has consistently campaigned against the restructuring.
Typical of the reaction was that from Bournemouth leader John Beesley (Con) who said: “One council serving the established urban area of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole will help to protect essential frontline services, will serve all residents far better than the structures we have today, and will be able to positively & strongly represent the area at a national and strategic level, for the benefit of residents and businesses.”
But is the decision merely the tip of the iceberg in relation to Mr Javid’s restructuring ambitions? Dorset is not the only shire area which – in the words of county leader Rebecca Knox (Con) – requires a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remodel local services with our communities and partners to be responsive, innovative and above all else, efficient and effective”.
Pixel Financial Management research exclusively shared with LGC last week showed how counties had by far the lowest level of usable reserves of any type of council, revealing the level of pressure on the tier. It is not only Dorset which believes that unitarisation offers the only hope. Speak to most county or district chief executives in private and you will get an admission that their area’s structure is inefficient and should change.
Of course, the financial crisis has been felt hardest at Northamptonshire CC, which imposed a section 114 notice on itself earlier this month, preventing it from undertaking any new expenditure. The fact that it is a showpiece Tory shire (rather than a Labour met, for example) which has succumbed first to austerity is little short of humiliating for the Conservative government. On this occasion there is unlikely to be charity and the expectation is that the county will also see restructuring, quite possibly in the form of two unitaries (a single unitary on the county council’s boundaries would be portrayed by many as a reward for failure). A report from inspector Max Caller expected next month will surely herald Northamptonshire’s future direction.
Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire are two other areas in which the ‘R’ word looms large, with both shires witnessing rival bids from the county and district tiers of government. The former county’s leader Martin Tett (Con) said last autumn he believed a countywide Buckinghamshire unitary had been winning over ministers, at least until one of its districts – presumably Aylesbury Vale DC – began making lavish promises of new housebuilding. In Oxfordshire’s long-running battle, it was probably the districts who felt they were in the ascendancy as county leader Ian Hudspeth (Con) fell out with then local MP David Cameron. However, Mr Cameron’s exit from Parliament has made that spat irrelevant.
But Mr Javid’s Dorset decision is likely to add fuel to reorganisation fires in all county areas, most of which have had some sort of structural debate in the past. The County Councils Network, in particular, has been prominent in making the case that only county boundaries offer the scale required for new structures to be sustainable.
Local government has quite simply gone past the point at which ministers cannot look at radical solutions. It seems implausible that the chancellor will be filling local government’s financial black hole anytime soon.
While the fair funding review is ongoing, under a Conservative government it will surely result in money flowing from some areas (dare we say London as a whole has been the least worst hit by austerity?) to the shires. However, without pumping money into the sector there simply are not the resources to make all current councils sustainable.
Mr Javid has an opportunity to make history as a great moderniser of the sector.
Only parliamentary arithmetic could be an obstacle to Dorset restructuring now. Christchurch MP Christopher Chope, an opponent of the proposals, may yet kick up a fuss. But it is hard to believe the parliamentary arithmetic will scupper the Future Dorset plan. Will Labour MPs be whipped en masse to come to the aid of two Conservative councillor dominated tiers of government for the sake of causing an embarassment? In other areas there may be more Conservative MPs who oppose restructuring but surely the penny is now finally dropping in Parliament that local government faces financial disaster.
Backers of the Dorset reform confidently predict savings of £100m over six years. But will this be enough? With central support for local government consistently diminishing, what happens when any new unitary councils feel the pinch? While the likes of Durham and Wiltshire, created in the reorganisation of the late noughties, are generally well-regarded, their lives have not been a bed of roses. Is it facetious to query whether under the current funding trajectory the current county unitaries may themselves end up merging in a few years’ time in pursuit of essential savings? Will a council area constitute an entire region?
In its pursuit of savings local government is becoming less local. Future Dorset should be congratulated for devising a plan that offers savings and is built on cohesive local identity. However, as government feels ever more remote and individuals feel ever more alienated from power, one must query the wisdom of a funding shortfall that is forcing local government into ever bigger units. When local stops feeling local it ceases to be relevant.
By Nick Golding, editor