In June 1970, Ted Heath strode into Downing Street clutching a hefty election manifesto.
Among the proposals was a new system of local government that would replace the messy and outdated patchwork of English local government with the kind of rational system beloved of late 60s technocrats. Four years later, amid great fanfare, 46 two-tier counties were born.
We all know how the story ends. Heath’s grand edifice started to crumble just 16 years after it was implemented, and it has continued to decay ever since. Only slightly more than half the original counties remain, and many of their leaders believe central government should finish the job of creating a unitary England. A study has been commissioned in Buckinghamshire (see below) and public debates launched in many other areas.
With Liberal Democrat local government minister Stephen Williams hinting that he supports reorganisation, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s open season on two-tier local government. In fact, it is far from clear that a new wave of unitaries really is on the table.
Eric Pickles recently reiterated his famous “pearl-handled revolver” threat to shoot any authority official who mentions the ‘r’ word; Labour ministers seem to be unenthusiastic about the prospect of spending their first few years in power on this issue.
When you look at the data, it is easy to see why. Reorganisations are time consuming, cost money in the short term and damage public service performance in the run-up to change. It’s a lot of effort for a process that will, optimistically, take three to four years to save what is probably considerably less than £900m.
The two-tier status quo is not an option for many parts of the country. By the end of the decade, the average county faces a spending gap of 18% and the average district 6%, according to the LGA’s Future Funding Outlook 2014 report. If unitarisation is politically blocked, then the only practical way forward is to explore new avenues for collaboration.
As NLGN will argue in a report to be published next week with PwC, there are huge opportunities for joint working in areas as diverse as service redesign, digital transformation and economic growth.
We are already starting to see evidence that this kind of activity can both reduce costs and improve outcomes. Suffolk is probably the county that has gone furthest down this route. Its seven districts have only four chief executives. Integration between pairs of districts has saved £1.6m in Babergh and Mid-Suffolk DCs and £1.7m in Waveney and Suffolk Coastal DCs.
Meanwhile, county-district collaboration has delivered a business rate pool, a major hub to co-locate council services with police, health and further education in Mildenhall and an ambitious programme of service redesign in Lowestoft, bringing in a wide range of local providers.
The next step is to roll out redesigned services for the vulnerable across the county. All of this is delivering cashable gains.
Similar initiatives are emerging elsewhere. Cambridgeshire has a county-wide board to reform its public services, Norfolk has a shared commissioning academy and Lancashire is driving forward a process that its chief executive describes as ‘smart reorganisation’ as it seeks tactical collaborations with its districts and other public service partners.
But as anyone who works in a two-tier area knows, collaboration is a difficult route to take. It requires heavy investment in strong, trusting relationships and a shared vision. Even then it can feel unstable. If ministers really believe this is the way forward, they need to make it easier.
Combined authorities are already coming to the shires, but they need to be about services as well as growth. Counties and districts should be incentivised to set up joint outcomes boards with a duty to integrate services to improve services and efficiency.
No one would require an unwilling district to give up its sovereignty, but that district would have to explain why not integrating was the right way forward.
If there is one thing we have learned since the Heath era, it is that purposeful and intelligent muddling through can sometimes equal and occasionally trump the power of top-down change. In the absence of a political consensus on reorganisation, this is the road two-tier areas will have to travel.
Simon Parker, director, New Local Government Network