District councils face a historic test. As a group they face harsh cuts second only to those being imposed on metropolitan districts.
Top down reorganisation is, thankfully, off the agenda until at least 2015. But as budget pressures continue into the next parliament, a future set of Treasury ministers might well start looking enviously at the savings promised by structural changes in countries like Wales and Finland.
This means that now is the time for districts to make their case – they need to articulate the unique benefits they bring in a time of austerity.
A new collection of essays from NLGN and the District Councils Network (DCN) brings together some of the country’s most prominent district leaders and chief executives to understand how this tier of government is changing. Our writers want to see district councils at the heart of deeply interconnected networks of communities, public services and political representatives.
In practice, this means districts have to transcend the confines of scale, cultural and organisational boundaries. In some cases, this means working at the level of towns and villages to build services around their needs. It certainly means sharing leadership and services with other districts and counties.
In some cases, it means working with other local service providers to develop a shared public service culture within the district. Being a networked district definitely means working closely with communities, business and the voluntary sector to champion their needs and represent their interests with the county and other services such as police and health.
Districts are uniquely placed to do this – they represent real places, communities and economies. With an average of one politician for every seven staff and every 2,500 residents, they are able to provide a level of democratic leadership and engagement that few other parts of local government can manage.
It is striking that some high profile issues did not emerge as powerful drivers of change for our contributors. Sharing services was an important theme, but was not seen as transformative. The resulting organisations will still be district councils.
There are few thoughts in the collection about future shire governance frameworks, but this probably reflects a sense that new ways of working will emerge naturally as districts transform themselves and their relationships with counties, parishes and communities.
The conclusion of our collection is simple. We recognise the undoubted concerns about the capacity of districts to function effectively. Where the sense of place identity is weak, some districts are open to the charge of being an administrative fiction. But it is also clear that there is now an opportunity for this group of councils to develop its distinctive role and emerge leaner and stronger.
The danger is not that districts are inherently unsustainable, but that they fail to recognise their scope for influence and leadership. This tier of government must own and lead the inevitable process of change, or risk becoming a victim of it.
NLGN’s new collection of essays, Delivering Distinctiveness.
Edited by Daniel Goodwin and supported by DCN, it includes contributions from Sandra Whiles (chief executive Blaby DC), Manjeet Gill (chief executive West Lindsey DC), Robert Gordon (Con, leader, Hertfordshire CC) and Neil Clarke (Con, chair, DCN).
Daniel Goodwin, chief executive, St Albans City and DC and Simon Parker, director, New Local Government Network