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The spectre of unitaries must not damage co-operation

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The Department for Communities & Local Government’s cohabitation with the Home Office means it is subject to the highest security in Whitehall. It is therefore uncertain whether Eric Pickles has been able to carry out his intention of keeping a pearl-handled revolver in his desk drawer. He promised to use this to shoot the first civil servant who called for local government reorganisation.

It is fortunate for coalition longevity that Mr Pickles’ pledge applied to expendable civil servants and not ministers. The DCLG’s resident Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams would otherwise be heading somewhere more deathly even than his party’s conference. Mr Williams this week called for reorganisation, insisting only unitary councils provide the required scale to devolve significant Whitehall powers.

Mr Williams spoke soon after his Tory DCLG colleague Kris Hopkins pooh-poohed plans being hatched by Chorley BC to break free from Lancashire CC. Such a move would be disruptive and “distract local government from the core task of devolving and providing services”, the Conservative minister said.

It is not only within the DCLG that unitary battles loom. The spectre of local government reorganisation is threatening trouble at many authorities. Unitary councils are being presented as a means of alleviating the financial pressure engulfing the sector. One organisation is more efficient to run than two, so goes the theory.

Mr Hopkins is right to point out that reorganisation is distracting. Many of the last set of new unitary councils, created in 2009, had difficult births. Counties and districts fell out; members and officers hatched rival plans which led to animosity as so many people fought for supremacy – and indeed their jobs.

However, the scale of spending cuts demanded from councils already provides limitless distractions from the goal of providing high quality services. The commitment of the three main party leaders not to cut NHS spending, coupled with the political imperative to avoid slashing pensions, schools and the armed forces, means local government faces further huge budget reductions after the next election. (The NHS is sacred but social care isn’t.)

Councils cannot go on offering the same services, retaining current systems and structures, but with fewer resources. To continue functioning, all authorities need to reform both internally and by working in a more structured way, focusing more on preventative interventions, with other organisations in their area, including the NHS and police. In two-tier areas this total place approach will inevitably bind county and district closer together, even if they notionally remain separate organisations.

So a spirit of cooperation must preside over every council. In some cases it may entail a formal process of local government reorganisation; in other places it may not. Pitch battles for territory will indicate councils have been distracted from the joint work required to safeguard as many services as possible and are failing residents. DCLG ministers can rest assured on one point – no pearl-handled revolvers will be drawn in local government after 2015. Only plastic-handled revolvers will remain after councils sell anything superfluous to protect their most vital services.

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