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Financial rationalists are not the only players in the structure debate

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Commentary on the restructuring debate before the County Councils Network conference

Some issues never go away. Council underfunding is one, although the fact that councils this decade really have struggled to maintain services amid budget cuts perhaps suggests the sector over-egged the poverty pudding in the noughties. Centralism is another perennial live issue but devolution, such as has occurred, has at least changed the tone of that debate.

However, the issue of council restructuring has a persistence bettered only by Middle East land disputes. Arguments about the desirability of unitary councils have been around even longer then Robert Mugabe, to cite a topical example.

The County Councils Network’s annual conference usually brings with it a rise in tensions between the upper-tier councils and their district cousins, festooned as it always is with at least one report emphasising the advantage of scale or the underfunding of counties compared with the lower tier.

Thus, two days before the CCN’s annual big bash begins, we have seen a report it commissioned from the thinktank Respublica claim county unitaries could save anything up to, wait for it… £12bn.

And this year tensions are particularly high, coming shortly after the communities secretary announced he was minded to approve the restructuring of the predominantly two-tier historic Dorset area into two new unitaries.

The proponents of restructuring in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, and many other places besides expressed glee at the Dorset announcement. Although, as the LGC Briefing has previously relayed, with the government lacking a majority, it is by no means certain Mr Javid can get the Dorset proposal through Parliament, yet alone far more contentious plans in other parts of the country.

Speak to many chief executives in two-tier areas and you’ll regularly get a private admission that their area’s structure is all wrong. Many district chiefs would secretly advocate axing their council to facilitate economies of scale. A number of county chiefs regard their boundaries as incoherent, and either too big or too small.

The lambasting of councils’ “Victorian footprints” by Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy, earlier this month constituted a plea to ramp up the reorganisation debate. He urged chief executives to work “anonymously” through the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers (at whose summit he was speaking) to “push a policy agenda that says… ‘two tier doesn’t work and it’s not part of the future’.” Mr Whiteman’s comments were not confined to the shires; he also mooted whether London’s boroughs are too small and the capital needs to expand.

In recent years much of the debate around local structures has centred on rational economic factors: travel to work areas have been a key factor in determining combined authority boundaries. The need for economies of scale in straitened times is at the heart of the campaign against two-tier. However, it doesn’t all come down to rationality.

There are more Conservative backbenchers than Dorset plan opponent Christopher Chope who do not want to see their local district axed. But sentiment for areas whose boundaries do not at first glance make rational financial sense goes way beyond the Tory Commons benches.

Indeed, the clamour for the One Yorkshire devolution deal emphasises the importance of heart, as well as head, in the structure debate (this in a largely Labour county). Yorkshire is vast; parts of it are industrial; parts of it are agricultural; it is not a ‘travel-to-work’ area – but it is widely understood by the public. Passion for Yorkshire runs far beyond Geoffrey Boycott and Alan Bennett.

A recent collection of essays by the centre-right thinktank Localis argued in favour of “neo-localism” – a romantic as opposed to merely economic argument for local control.

In his essay, Localis chief executive Liam Booth-Smith wrote: “The economic arguments for greater local control have taken us so far but we need more. The head needs the heart.” Notions of beauty and virtue were relevant and they “reach the part of us immune to the rationalists”.

Since the vote for Brexit there has been much debate about belonging and a growing realisation that many people feel far from power. A profound debate about identity has begun.

In an LGC column Tony Travers recently predicted London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester could follow Catalonia and Lombardy in looking for secession, or at least greater autonomy. But why confine this argument to the big cities? It was after all the shires and metropolitan areas that were the Brexit heartlands, potentially indicating their residents are among those who feel most marginalised in Britain’s centralised political structure.

Those hoping this briefing would be a straightforward preview of the CCN conference may by now be feeling their patience is being stretched. Most of Yorkshire isn’t part of the CCN, nor is Lombardy, for that matter.

The point of this briefing is to place the debate about two-tier local government in the new uncertain and rapidly evolving political climate. There are many barriers to council restructuring when a government has no majority and, conversely, there are many economic reasons why it has to happen before too long – an extra tier of government adds another layer of expense. But, crucially, the emotional attachment people feel to their area has often been neglected by the restructuring rationalists.

In some areas the traditional county identity may tug at the heart-strings above all else. This may be true in a lot of Dorset but it will not be true of everywhere. County, district and – crucially – parish or town councils will need to make a case for the heart as well as the wallet. And this battle for supremacy of identity is by no means confined to local political actors or indeed residents: identity matters when it comes to inward investment and tourism. A figure from Kirklees MBC – a council whose identity, dare we say, lacks a little romance – recently told LGC how Huddersfield Town’s promotion to the Premiership had brought about global interest in the met’s component parts. Meanwhile, North and West Dorset DCs might find there is more sentiment for “Dorset” and for their constituent parts including Blandford Forum, Shaftesbury and Dorchester than there is for them.

The current national political impasse will not last forever and there will come a point when restructuring becomes more feasible once again. While there be more reports like that of Respublica which will make an economic case for change, the political winds of change currently being felt in Catalonia will eventually have an impact on the English shires.

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