The District Councils’ Network does not anticipate a “huge change” in the way the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government approaches reorganisation proposals despite a change of secretary of state.
While James Brokenshire told LGC in his first interview that there is “clear space and scope” for more unitary councils, chair of the DCN’s chief executives’ group Paul Shevlin is not expecting a radical new direction.
“[Mr Brokenshire] is a man we can work with,” says Mr Shevlin. “I don’t think there’s a huge change in what he’s saying [compared with Sajid Javid], because he’s still looking for consensus with the districts as building blocks.”
The idea of gaining consensus is important to Mr Shevlin, who adds: “Reorganisation can’t be a quick fix if it only solves [problems] for a short period of time. Decisions have got to be decided locally to decide the quality and sustainability of local services.”
Yet in the case of Northamptonshire, a two-tier area facing reorganisation potentially into two new unitary councils as a result of financial problems at the county council level, Mr Shevlin says the DCN will not be lobbying to protect the districts.
“If [reorganisation into unitaries] is best for services in Northamptonshire then of course we’d support it,” Mr Shevlin says, adding: “I think there will be a different solution [to financial problems] in different geographical areas. That debate has got to be decided locally.”
Mr Shevlin says the DCN is lobbying for more money to help protect services and the structures they are currently operating in.
“The district voice has been a growing voice - we do have a slightly different approach to other groups and by that approach we’ve illustrated quite a good track record of success,” Mr Shevlin said, and pointed to member councils gaining greater control over the new homes bonus and the disabled facilities grant as examples.
Ultimately, however, the DCN is fighting for more resource for districts to help keep local government afloat.
“Fairer funding with the existing pot is not sustainable going forward,” Mr Shevlin says. “The real drive from the DCN is that pot should increase to match the costs of delivering sustainable services.
“Each taxpayer pays £150 a year to the district, that’s only £3 a week per head. Absolutely more needs to go into the local pot, because that’s what will ultimately make the difference in terms of health prevention across the board.”
Mr Shevlin is emphatically in favour of councils gaining more control over their finances – devolution and localism are themes that run central to the DCN’s main lobbying causes, including fairer funding and an increase in the amount of business rates councils get to retain.
“Ninety pence in every pound in Leeds is decided in Whitehall,” says Mr Shevlin, who is also chief executive of Craven DC in North Yorkshire. “That seems like an incredibly centralised system and that can’t be right - we need the local difference at the local spend.”
This includes giving district councils greater devolved responsibility over preventative health services.
“Districts are key in prevention,” says Mr Shevlin. “If you start taking those preventative services away then you’re going to start seeing a big impact on the health service in future years. That needs to be recognised so the DCN is lobbying for a prevention precept for district councils - just as you have a social care precept - with the ability to ask permission to raise taxation.”
This idea, which DCN believe could generate an extra £25m if districts could raise an additional 2% on council tax bills, fell on deaf ears when presented to the government at the beginning of this year. But districts have had successes, especially around the retention of the new homes bonus in its current form despite moves from the government to make changes.
Mr Shevlin believes there are two key factors to districts’ lobbying successes to date.
The first has been through providing data and evidence that districts have “got the job done” by being “incredibly fleet of foot”.
Secondly, the DCN has lobbied strongly on issues, such as fairer funding and business rates reforms, which Mr Shevlin says was only made possible through the network’s members’ board which gives regional representatives a clear voice when forming the overall plan.
“We’re supported by our incredibly diverse chief executive community,” says Mr Shevlin. “I chair a 20-strong chief executive group which represents all types of communities you can imagine, so it’s a very broad church. We also encourage regional activities to get everyone behind what we’re trying to do.
“Ultimately, we are there, we are at the business table [with government] and we are arguing the corner for districts.”