Local government must redesign itself or the next government will do it for them, whichever party wins power, the outgoing chair of the Local Government Association has warned.
In an interview to mark then end of his four years as the most senior councillor in the country, Lord Porter (Con) told LGC amongst his proudest achievements was the government’s lifting of the borrowing cap on the housing revenue account as well as winning additional funding for social care and the infrastructure needed to support new homes.
However, he said one of his biggest regrets was that he had not won the argument on devolution.
“They either get ahead of the curve and design what new looks like or somebody else will.”
“I couldn’t convince the government that devolution should happen just because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I couldn’t convince the sector that the strings [attached to devolution by ministers] were something you had to do to get it. So I failed at both ends of that argument.”
He predicted that future devolution deals would come with more strings attached, on top of the requirement for an elected mayor which has deterred so many councils from signing up for devolution deals. “Almost certainly part of the deal is going to be reorganisation”, Lord Porter said, in a bid to counter the argument that a new metro mayor would create an additional layer of bureaucracy by removing a layer of government at the other end of the scale.
Lord Porter, who is also leader of South Holland DC in Lincolnshire, said: “If Labour win the next election, reorganisation’s on the table because it’s unfinished business, so Exeter and Norwich, places like that.
“If we win the next election, I think whoever’s running the Treasury will tell everybody else ‘You must have too much money because there’s too many of them’… So I think reorganisation’s coming and for me, that’s the challenge for the sector.
“They either get ahead of the curve and design what new looks like or somebody else will end up designing what new looks like and it definitely won’t be what we want because it won’t be designed by us.”
Asked whether, as a district leader, the abolition of two-tier government would be a loss to local democracy, Lord Porter said: “If I was drawing a map for local government, I certainly wouldn’t draw the one we’ve got now.”
He suggested councils serving populations of between 350,000 and 400,000 - at the lower end of the current government guidance on the size of new unitaries - would be ideal and that they should be responsible for all public sector services on their patch including health and the police.
Lord Porter said he was surprised “every week” that widespread reorganisation had not happened already, although acknowledged the government’s lack of a majority combined with a focus on Brexit made it difficult to do anything “of weight”.
As an example, he pointed to the planned Local Government Finance Bill which would have allowed the sector to retain 100% of business rates but was shelved in favour of a move to 75% retention which would not require legislation.
“It would end up like a Christmas tree, everybody will be hanging their baubles on the Bill. There’ll be so many amendments to it, it won’t look like anything that the government thought it would, so they’re not going to go anywhere near it, and that’s been the same for most serious policies.”
He said the Commons had recently spent time debating the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill
“Don’t get me wrong. I like animals and I don’t think people should make lions and tigers do stupid things in circuses, but is that the most serious thing we’ve got to deal with? I don’t think it is, but that’s the world we’ve been living in, in this bizarre Brexit/not-Brexit world. The oxygen’s been starved from everything else.”