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Power to the people?

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Grassroots involvement is the holy grail of unitary reorganisation — so how are the nine new super-councils shaping up?

In April, local government underwent one of its biggest transformations in recent years with the arrival of nine new
unitary councils.

The extension of single-tier local government to a further three million people across England was intended to save money, improve services and strengthen local leadership. When they bid for unitary status, councils promised new ways of engaging with their communities to ensure the voices of local people would not be sacrificed.

Three months on, has that pledge of revitalised engagement been fulfilled? And what has the emergence of the new supercouncils meant for local democracy?

Cheshire West and Chester Council

We want to use forums to reach the people who never came out to play with us

Lynn Riley Cheshire West and Chester Council

The new Cheshire West and Chester Council regarded its transition to unitary status as a chance to transform relationships with local people. Fourteen community forums have been established to give residents a greater say in the look and feel of their neighbourhoods.

“We want to use community forums to reach the people who historically never came out to play with us,” says Lynn Riley (Con), executive member for area and community. “We’re trying to come up with something that isn’t the predictable stuff that’s turned people off over the years.”

She believes the forums will have a vital role in bringing the council closer to its communities. “There is a large, disaffected public who see themselves as ‘us’ and the council as ‘them’, and this is an opportunity to bridge that gap,” she says.

“This is a real mechanism for making our services as appropriate to communities as they can be, but also a mechanism for the public to hold us to account. When community forums are telling us something — for example that there are big antisocial behaviour issues in a particular badly lit area — next time we go back we’d better have
done something about it.”

Efforts to draw diverse groups into the forums appear to be working. Cllr Riley cites a group of secondary school pupils who came to a meeting to raise a problem with school transport. The issue was taken up at a senior level and swiftly resolved. “[That] will say to 1,500 kids that they can change the world, if they start with a step,” she says.

Now that the unitary authority is responsible for the totality of local services, there is no excuse for inaction, she says. “There are countless examples of things that got stuck in the system or fell between the district and county and never got resolved,” she says. “Now, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Shropshire Council

In Shropshire, too, the new unitary has thought carefully about how best to reach local people in an area previously served by a county and five districts. Its solution was to establish 28 local joint committees to encourage public participation in decision-making.

The committees are also responsible for scrutinising local service delivery, and calling council officers, councillors or representatives of other service providers to account where necessary.

Unitary, town and parish councillors sit on each committee. Partners such as health and police, local businesses and community groups can also be co-opted, although they do not have voting rights.

According to John Hodkinson, community working manager, southern area, at Shropshire Council, the meetings have so far proved refreshingly relaxed.

“They’re not stuffy formal meetings where everybody sits in a square with the public at the back not coughing for fear of being thrown out,” he says. Levels of interest in the new committees have varied, but on the whole have been “encouraging”, he adds.

“One lesson has been ensuring the meetings are very open and interactive, and talk about the things people want to talk about,” says Mr Hodkinson. “Then, having talked about those issues, something has to come of it. The very last thing we want it to be is a talking shop.”

One of the strengths of the new committees is that they are backed up with delegated budgets, ranging this year from £17,000 to £71,000, depending on population. Committees can use these funds to commission services, or invite local groups to submit bids for particular projects.

The committees are reinforced, too, by the support of key partners such as the police. “By bringing partners together, it removes the consultation fatigue and meeting fatigue and makes it more meaningful for people,” says Mr Hodkinson.

The fact that each committee has a lead officer drawn from the senior ranks of the council is an additional indication of the commitment placed by the unitary in the new structure.

Durham County Council

In Durham, where the unitary replaced a county and seven districts, the council has also put partnership working and delegated budgets at the heart of its new approach.

It has launched 14 area action partnerships to give people a greater voice in local service provision, each with a basic budget of £150,000 topped up with locality allowances for each councillor.

Gordon Elliott, head of partnerships and community engagement at the council, says the partnerships were an integral part of Durham’s successful bid for unitary status. “It recognised that an authority of this size would have to engage with local communities, and we wanted to improve on what had gone before,” he says.

The board of each partnership is made up of seven councillors, seven representatives of partner organisations and seven members of the public.

“The public was telling us it should be… a fresh start, and open to people who haven’t been round the table in the past,” he says.

There was a consensus that the size of the partnership boards should remain manageable to prevent them from becoming unwieldy talking shops. “Some might say [21 members] is still pretty big, but it was as tight as we could go,” says Mr Elliott.

He has been “pleasantly surprised” by the level of enthusiasm among the public to take part. Around 1,700 people attended launch events for the new partnerships, of which more than a third expressed an interest in joining a partnership board and four-fifths said they believed their participation would shape the work and priorities of their local partnership.

At each launch event, people were given the chance to vote on potential issues for their local partnership to tackle. Priorities varied by area, but street cleanliness, support for voluntary organisations and activities for young people all scored highly.

Mr Elliott fully expects the partnerships to evolve in the light of experience and predicts they will look quite different a year or two down the line. “We’ve set this up and everyone’s enthusiastic, but it’s not set in stone,” he says.

Doubts remain, however, about the capacity of the new unitaries to address the democratic deficit resulting from the loss of district councils.

Northumberland County Council

We have to persuade people why it’s worth their while to turn up

Cllr Gordon Castle, Northumberland County Council

Northumberland County Council, which covers almost 2,000 square miles, is geographically the largest unitary in England. Gordon Castle, a member of the Conservative and Independent Group, who was previously a councillor on the now-defunct Alnwick DC, says unitary councillors are forced by an increased workload to spread themselves too thinly. “It’s impossible to co-ordinate the programme of meetings so clashes are avoided,” he says.

The new council has opted for a combination of councillor-led area committees and community forums to get local people involved. Cllr Castle says the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the new structures. “In no way could they be said to replace district councils, but they are a means to give local people a chance to express their concerns and shape our priorities,” he says.

But inadequate promotion means meetings, even when held in the evening, are not well attended and tend to attract the usual suspects. “We could do more to advertise them,” he says. “We have to persuade people
why it’s worth their while to turn up.”

Cllr Castle is concerned that the new arrangements, far from simplifying local democracy, could make the landscape more complex in the eyes of residents. “There isn’t clarity at the moment,” he says. “We used to have parish councils, district councils and the county council. Now we have no district councils, area committees with limited responsibilities and parish councils not clear what their role will be.”

The challenge for the new unitary councils will be to convince residents that mechanisms for local engagement are clear, relevant and, above all, effective.

If they succeed, the prize will be a degree of local engagement that surpasses anything that has gone before. But if they fail, one of the founding principles of single-tier local government will have been seriously undermined.

Unitary

Population

Area (sq miles)

Northumberland311,0001,936
Durham494,000862
Cheshire East361,000447
Cheshire West and Chester328,100355
Shropshire290,9001,234
Bedford155,000184
Central Bedfordshire252,000276
Cornwall531,6001,376
Wiltshire452,5001,257
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