In the latest exchange in the two-tier unitary war, the County Councils Network commissioned and published two ‘studies’ that conclude, unsurprisingly, that future unitary councils should be based on existing county geographies for reasons of finance and service redesign.
Equally unsurprisingly, the District Councils’ Network has responded with claims that the findings of both reports are “too simplistic” and ignore the differences in local economies. The latter point has some merit, as anyone involved in truly local regeneration will attest; globalisation applies at a local, as well as at an international level.
The two networks make important points: that there remains an imperative to reduce costs and redesign how we operate and that the two requirements are interrelated. However, we must ensure we remain in touch with those we serve and with whom we work if being more efficient is to become more effective: individuals, communities and businesses.
In May last year, both networks signed up to a statement of intent, recognising their differences, but agreeing to work together in the interests of local communities. When you analyse the latest differences, you find that they still agree more than they disagree. The problem seems to be geography and power, which don’t matter to the average person. It is how local authorities listen to us and improve our lives that matters and not how they are structured.
The latest moves towards combined authorities, whilst in many (county council) eyes are the early skirmishes in a renewed unitary war, may well be most effective means of achieving the balance necessary to reduce costs, improve service effectiveness and improve lives and economies to a greater extent than we have in the last 20 years - and that is not to deny the successes in that period.
To secure those achievements, there has to be a strong element of that elusive concept: trust. Whilst two-tier areas continue to argue at a national level about which has the right answers, trust is absent and a solution remains out of reach. The truth is that neither side is wholly right; as ever, the answer is somewhere between the two.
How do we make the progress necessary for our citizens to thrive and prosper? It is tempting to say lock representatives of the different tiers in a room and don’t let them out until they agree. If nothing else, whilst they are locked away, we will not have to listen to the less-than-academic argument.
So, come on, networks, talk to each other!
Steve Atkinson, chief executive, Hinckley & Bosworth BC