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‘London boroughs and surrounding shires must work better together’

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Local government obsesses about boundaries: we always think they’re wrong.

We spend hours, and pounds, looking at options for council reorganisation or combined authorities, and rarely agree where lines on maps should be drawn. We seem intent on imposing our own version of order on a complex world that doesn’t respect those lines.

Nowhere is that truer than in and around our capital city. London’s economic and social networks stretch beyond the Greater London Authority’s administrative boundaries into neighbouring districts. Many of those living outside the city’s boundary travel in for work or leisure, whilst some city residents head in the other direction, for similar reasons. None of them care too much about those administrative boundaries; they just expect neighbouring councils to work together to deliver good services efficiently.

Work with your neighbours is the key message of a report, Next-door Neighbours, launched by Centre for London and Southern Policy Centre on 24 January. Our research shows the intricate web of economic and social connections between London and neighbouring counties and districts. It demonstrates how interdependent London and its hinterland are.

The report also explores collaboration across the London boundary, and finds a very mixed picture. Some local partnerships work well, and there is an emerging council-led partnership, the Wider South East Political Steering Group, which aims to bring together London boroughs with their neighbouring shire councils. But that partnership is in its early days and doesn’t yet have the buy-in of all who should be at the table; indeed, some are unaware of its existence. Nor does it include influential bodies such as local enterprise partnerships.

Our report encourages councils in and around London to strengthen the partnership, without subsuming individual identities. We suggest the partnership should build a shared vision and lead a more integrated approach to tackling shared challenges: housing, infrastructure, the economy. The draft London Plan, currently out to consultation, should catalyse closer collaboration. A shared vision and voice is particularly important as our big regional cities build increasingly powerful combined authorities.

Central government must also play its part. Policy-making should acknowledge the wider south east; perhaps the area needs its own ministerial champion. Centralised mechanisms for funding housing and infrastructure investment need to recognise the case for strategic investment across boundaries.

No re-drawn boundary is ever going to reflect how London and its neighbours depend on one another, so the only solution is to build a partnership which allows the wider south east to thrive.

Simon Eden, associate, Southern Policy Centre

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