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The gene that drives re-organisation

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Every reform of local government in Britain leads to a smaller number of councils. This year has seen the merger of counties and districts into one or more new unitary authorities in seven areas.

There are now fewer councils and councillors than before.

Over the longer-term, this process appears inexorable. We are, it would appear, gradually moving towards a single council for England.

Similar pressures have been seen in other public services.

Several years ago, the government wanted to move to regional police forces. Fire and ambulance services now often operate over multi-council areas. There are voices suggesting the need to reduce the number of unitary authorities in Wales. The NHS is relentlessly reorganised.

This week’s LGC reports that the government is displeased because “no real across-the-board progress on enhanced two-tier working has been made” in England.

Although the government also says it “currently has no plans” for encouraging more unitary-based reforms, the use of the word ‘currently’ is, by any standards, an implied threat.

It is clear that unless councils manage to work together the possibility of further structural reforms is possible.

DCLG’s demand for action would almost certainly be intensified by a change of government

Tony Travers

Two-tier areas may comfort themselves with the thought that Gordon Brown’s government seems doomed. But there are at least two reasons for not feeling too comfortable.

First, elections are not over until the votes are counted. Second, the Conservatives would be even more likely than the existing Labour government to demand cuts.

It is unlikely a Cameron government would sit idly by if two-tier council areas appeared to be ignoring demands for efficiencies. 

DCLG’s demand for action would almost certainly be intensified by a change of government, even if the threat of a structural reorganisation were to be reduced.

Indeed, a capacity to work together across local authority and other public service boundaries seems likely to be a key feature of good government for a decade or more into the future.

For district and county councils, it may also be a self-preservation tactic.

No nation on earth is more willing than Britain to reorganise public service providers. Structural change is seen as the solution to political, financial and even social or moral problems.

General elections will never remove the gene that impels all governments to reorganise public service providers

Tony Travers

Where else but Britain would a State agency be set up as the result of a bout of moralising about parental responsibility with the objective of squeezing cash out of parents to pay for their children, only to be abolished when it cost more to run than it collected?

Thus was the Child Support Agency born and killed off within just 15 years.

It is easy to see how future ministers might resort to further reform to reduce spending and/or improve public services.

Two-tier areas had better find ways of co-operating to deliver savings, or the wicked government will do something nasty to them.

General elections will never remove the gene that impels all governments to reorganise public service providers.

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