In my political career, I have lived through three attempts to reorganise local government in Cumbria. All of them failed.
First there was the Banham Review in the early 1990s, then John Prescott’s regional government proposals which fell at the first hurdle with a resounding No vote in the North East of England, and most recently the Blair government’s reforms which saw a number of counties go unitary, including neighbouring Northumberland and Durham, but not Cumbria.
The process for reorganisation is set out in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, with additional powers to disapply or vary the 2007 Act granted to the secretary of state under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016.
What has been interesting is the progression of views under the recent succession of secretaries of state: Eric Pickles, of course prior to the 2016 Act, sought full agreement on any reorganisation proposal from all affected authorities. Following the introduction of the 2016 Act, Greg Clark was prepared to consider proposals with a minority of dissent, for example one or two councils against, with the remaining in support. But it was the announcement in March 2018 that Sajid Javid was minded to proceed with a unitary proposal submitted by Buckinghamshire CC that brought reorganisation once again to the forefront of my mind. The announcement indicated a willingness to consider a proposal which has the support of only one affected authority. Further consultation is being undertaken, and I am sure I am not alone in awaiting the final decision with interest.
The problem up until now has been that the chances of all affected authorities in an area reaching agreement on a reorganisation proposal are slim. It is equally unlikely that the local MPs will all be in agreement, even those of the same party.
But the secretary of state does not have to wait for proposals to come from an area before anything can happen. The 2016 Act gives him the power to vary the 2007 Act and ask the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to review an area, consult on options, and then recommend a unitary structure to the secretary of state. Local councils can respond to the consultation but given the vested interests involved it should not be left to councils to oversee the process. When Cumbria was created in 1974, the government came up with the proposals, took a decision and the new structure was implemented.
What exists across England at the moment is a patchwork of different types of local government. Whilst the vast majority of the population lives under a unitary authority, including the whole of London, all the major conurbations, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and several shire counties, a small number remain under a two-tier structure like Cumbria.
In this age of austerity, and with all the challenges we face, it is time for a change. Parliament has given the government the power to act, and government must now take the lead.
Stewart Young (Lab), Cumbria CC leader