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In search of the restructuring Holy Grail

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Commentary on whether a unitary county is recreating its districts

Communities secretary is not the easiest of cabinet posts in which to make one’s mark on the national stage.

Local government craves financial reform but tentative moves to create a fairer system invariably come up against the resistance of the Treasury, and quite possibly councils too, ending up in the long grass. A fair wind does not always blow in support of the sort of progress made by Greg Clark on the devolution of powers; commentators such as Tony Travers believe the weather vane is now firmly pointing in the wrong direction.

Should progress ever be made on social care or children’s services (heaven forbid), it’s a fair bet the health secretary or education secretary will be the face on telly claiming the credit. The cohesion aspects of the communities secretary’s role are high profile only at times of strife: the media take an interest only when things are going badly.

It was suggested to LGC this week that it is common for most new communities secretaries to at least show a dalliance with local government restructuring. Just imagine the glory in getting lines drawn on a map – not in a bad way, like Cecil Rhodes, but in a good way to improve public service efficiency, local identity and to reflect travel-to-work areas!

While you could alternatively plug away on – to use one example – local area agreements for ages, only to see your initiative consigned to the dustbin as soon as you leave the Department for Communities & Local Government, if you redraw the local government map, you’ll be remembered forever more! No doubt the good people of Chester West & Chester Council are erecting a statue of David Miliband for starting the ball rolling that resulted in their local identity being so appropriately and catchily represented in their local political governance!

New ministers’ interest in restructuring is said to be regularly piqued by DCLG civil servants, weary at the two-tier governance map, which – dare LGC say it – is probably not the one you’d end up with if starting from a blank canvas. However, many ministers come to be wary of the dangers of restructuring (even if they do not go to the extreme lengths of Eric Pickles, who threatened to shoot any official who mentioned it). Any reduction in councillor numbers effectively culls your party’s foot soldiers, and the perception is that officers and members take their eyes off the performance ball as they become locked in an internecine battle for survival.

There is also a broader dilemma. While there may be some economies of scale from making service units larger, bigger councils are less local. What is the point of having local government that, well, isn’t very local?

A number of the unitary councils created under the Labour government have come up with a structure that seeks to make a fair compromise between the efficiencies of scale and the need for local representation. Durham CC’s area action partnerships are forums of councillors, residents and partners who devise plans for each of the 14 localities. Cornwall Council is giving responsibility for running services to parish or town councils.

However, this week Northumberland CC announced what appeared to be radical plans to solve this dilemma. Its proposal to create five “local area councils”, covering North Northumberland, Tynedale, Castle Morpeth, Ashington & Blyth and Cramlington & Bedlington, seemed to amount to a unitary county recreating its districts (albeit on different boundaries). The new bodies will take decisions on planning applications and devolved highway maintenance funding. The proposals come after the Tory surge in last month’s council elections gave the previously Labour-led county a Conservative leader, although the drawing of straws in a division in which the vote was tied deprived the party of a majority.

Northumberland’s leadership was this week unwilling to discuss the local area councils with LGC, limiting our ability to fully comprehend the magnitude of the initiative. However, it is surely a rare thing for a council to create a body which also goes by the name ‘council’.

County papers say the bodies will have the status of council committees and have terms of reference which include “responsibility for considering and recommending adjustments to budget priorities in relation to local transport plan issues within their area, and to make decisions in relation to devolved capital highway maintenance allocations, to make and consider local planning applications as per the planning delegation scheme and locally relevant petitions.”

It remains to be seen whether Northumberland – the home of Holy Island – has found the local government Holy Grail, by combining economies of scale with localism. And, with the North East Combined Authority failing to remain united in order to install a mayor to win power from Whitehall, the plans can hardly be termed “double devolution”.

Perhaps the true local government reorganisation Holy Grail may be found elsewhere. They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas but six out of nine of Dorset’s councils, including the historic county’s now unitary Bournemouth BC and Borough of Poole, had come together in agreement that the creation of two unitaries was the best way the county could withstand austerity.

LGC understands the plans had won the DCLG’s approval only – in Whitehall’s rather centralised apparatus – to fail to win the endorsement of No 10 before the general election was called. Dorset CC’s leader Robert Gould (Con) who described the two-tier system as “not sustainable” lost his seat in the county elections. It is unkown if the county’s new leader is supportive. Or indeed, should Theresa May remain in Downing Street, whether she and her communities secretary will be prepared to wipe Christchurch BC and East Dorset and Purbeck DCs – all Conservative controlled – from the map.

In apparent reference to council reorganisation, the Conservative manifesto says a Tory government would “support those authorities that wish to combine to serve their communities better”. It remains to be seen whether Dorset would qualify. And it remains to be seen whether any incoming communities secretary’s initial enthusiasm for reorganisation withstands the inevitable backlash to the easiest way of them securing a lasting legacy.

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