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Phil Swann: Lessons from unitary reorganisation

Phil Swann
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One of the biggest weaknesses in decision-making in the UK policy makers’ reluctance to learn the lessons of history.

This could affect discussions about local government reorganisation in non-metropolitan England.

The County Councils Network commissioned Shared Intelligence to draw some lessons from the ability of the unitary councils created in the 1990s and 2009 to respond to the challenges and opportunities facing local government today. Our evidence base is non-attributable interviews with current and former leaders and chief executives from a sample of new unitary councils.

A conclusion is that new unitary councils’ effectiveness is significantly influenced by a combination of scale, geography and sense of place.

Larger councils are more likely to be able to secure economies of scale and cover a geographical area that enables decision-making in areas such as health and care and the economy.

Sense of place is less tangible. It can act as a limiting factor on the optimum council size, but in many parts of the country people feel an attachment to counties. Our interviewees also highlighted councils’ need for the capacity to exploit a sense of place, which many smaller unitary councils lack.

Geography is an important factor, with so-called ‘under-bounded’ unitary councils facing particularly acute challenges. Tight boundaries can compound demographic, economic and financial pressures and often mean the council is unable to make key decisions.

Our report does not conclude that small unitary councils cannot perform well but our interviewees said the pressures of managing these councils can be intense. As one recently departed chief executive told us: “Chief executive jobs in small unitary councils are not for the faint-hearted.”

An underlying lesson from the unitary councils established in the 1990s is the risk of fragmentation. Our interviewees pointed to the challenges involved in delivering services such as social care, education and strategic planning in the context of small unitary councils. There is evidence that the task of splitting up services is more disruptive than merging them.

There is much to be learned from previous reorganisations about the implications for political leadership. A number of our interviewees talked about a successful “fight” for unitary status. They said unitary status became a goal in its own right and councils struggled to move on, particularly in getting to grips with key functions such as education and social care. One interviewee recalled: “The politicians were unable to raise their sights. There was a lack of ambition.”

It is clear from our interviews that the nature of the process for designing and agreeing unitary arrangements can have a significant impact on a successor council’s performance. It can sour relationships for years to come. This highlights what is possibly the most important lesson from history in this case: that building a shared case for change is critically important.

Phil Swann, executive chair, Shared Intelligence

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