As the new unitaries enter their fifth month and the government’s chosen ‘pathfinders’ focus on making two-tier working more efficient and effective, the latest round of local government reorganisation seemed to be bedding in.
The unitaries are reporting back positively and although the anticipated government-sponsored review of pathfinders is expected to be less than positive, some progress has been made.
So, a glowing first-term report for the unitaries and a C+ for the pathfinders as they conclude year two? Not according to the Department for Communities & Local Government.
Its strongly worded paper, seen by LGC and circulated ahead of a secret meeting of selected officers and leaders last month, threatens to reopen the unitary debate.
Heavily referencing the 2006 Strong and Prosperous Communities white paper, it concludes that two-tier government risks confusion, duplication and inefficiency, pathfinders aren’t achieving and “the status quo not an option”.
Despite three pages of criticism, the expected punchline does not materialise. A note in parentheses at point 14 confesses there are “no plans for a future unitary invitation”.
Instead, it appears to be a clumsy attempt to speed progress in two-tier areas using a mix of sibling rivalry (“unitaries are doing so well, why aren’t you?”), divide and rule (districts were only invited after counties intervened) and fear (“failure is not an option”).
It doesn’t acknowledge moves in East Hampshire DC and Havant BC to share a chief executive, similar plans in Dorset, or Powys CC’s planned merger with Powys Teaching Local Health Board. It does moot using “incentives, rewards or reprimands”.
The paper declares DCLG’s wish to “encourage and facilitate” progress.
Open discussion, giving credit where it’s due, accepting that councils (especially district treasurers) know the score would be a start.