Civil servants are preparing a fresh assault on the two-tier system as the crisis in the public finances forces mandarins to seek savings through any possible means.
In a move that could be seen as preparing the ground for further reorganisation, LGC has learnt the Department for Communities & Local Government held a private meeting in July with a select group of senior officers and members to discuss alternatives to current two-tier working arrangements.
Paul Rowsell, DCLG’s deputy director for local democracy, convened the meeting during the Local Government Association annual conference.
Council leaders and chief executives were asked for “ideas on how to move this agenda forward”.
LGC understands invitations to the session were initially sent only to county council figures before being extended to district representatives at the last minute. Around 50 people are thought to have attended.
According to a discussion paper circulated before the meeting, the department has concluded progress in two-tier pathfinder areas has been “somewhat slower than anticipated” with “no real across the board progress made” due to the “inherent political fragility” of enhanced two-tier working.
With the nine new unitary councils seen to be “well on track” to deliver more than £100m annual savings, the department has thrown down the gauntlet for two-tier areas to show how they can “realise the same outcomes without the need for structural change”.
While the department insists it “currently has no plans for a future unitary invitation”, the discussion paper repeats the message from the 2006 local government white paper that “the status quo is not an option for two-tier areas”.
It adds that “the imperatives to address these challenges are now even greater” with the economic climate forcing public sector organisations to do more for less.
“The message at the meeting from DCLG was very much ‘we believe two-tier local government is unsustainable’,” one attendee said.
“Our response was simple – ‘stop meddling’. Locally we’ve rebuilt trust and a sense of common purpose despite the government setting council against council in the now-quagmired reorganisation process.”
The paper specifically called for evidence of progress made on two-tier relations to date and examples of what ministers could do to remove legal and technical barriers to two-tier working.
It asked for suggestions of Incentives or reprimands to be employed to encourage progress.
Writing in LGC, Gary Porter (Con), chairman of the newly formed District Council Network, called for two-tier areas to adopt an “a la carte approach”, with a single officer structure providing services from which individual districts could select their own standards and service levels.
“So if a neighbouring authority wanted fortnightly bin collections while we want weekly ones, we can both be satisfied,” he explained.
A DCLG spokeswoman said the session was an opportunity for councils “to explore with the department how two-tier areas can better meet… challenges in the future”.