This is what we see from the devolution proposals drawn up by the Centre for Cities, a comprehensive reorganisation determined entirely by “functional geographic areas”:
Local government boundaries will match local economic boundaries — they will always be blurry, but the aim should be to contain as much of the local economy within the local authority area as possible — that is the area over which most people locally work and live their lives
At the heart of these proposals are a set of what Centre for Cities call “Mayoral Combined Authorities”, huge lumps of political geography based on the large conurbations. These monsters will, as the name suggests, have a directly elected mayor overseeing ‘powers’ like those currently enjoyed by the Mayor of London (or ‘not very many powers really’). Alongside these big new authorities comes the abolition of district councils, sweeping aside the tier of local government to which people have the closest relationship in favour of a series of unitary councils with a minimum population of 300,000 people.
The starting point here is that the only relationship between people and government is a narrowly defined (“where do people work”) understanding of the economy. We’re told that “…half of people in cities live and work in different local authorities, and 20 per cent of people in small towns commute into neighbouring cities and large towns for work…” without answering the related question: why does this matter?
Local government is not about managing local economies, it probably shouldn’t be about spatial or town planning, but rather about a set of well-defined and understood services delivered to local people. At the heart of this is, what we used to call in local government management speak, visible services. Things like emptying the bins, sweeping the streets, fixing potholes, planting the flowerbeds round the war memorial, and looking after the children’s playground. I know this all sounds really dull to grand folk in fine London offices, but such services are the basis of good local government everywhere. And delivering them doesn’t require an elected mayor or a huge authority covering a million or more people.
There’s a drive to create new unitary councils through local agreement. It’s not about getting better local government but rather about either trying to fix the funding problems in top tier councils or else chasing new devolution proposals that amount to little more than dollops of central government cash for transport schemes, subsidising office development or training 18 year olds.
Local government in England has a financial crisis brought about by central government refusing to fund social services adequately while, at the same time, stopping local councils raising the money through their own taxation powers. And this financial crisis is at its most acute in county councils where spending on social services to children and adults represents two-thirds and more of total spending.
You wouldn’t get to this truth by reading the Centre for Cities proposals for reorganisation. The proposals talk about handing over business rates to local councils and, in a roundabout way, dropping the cap on council tax increases but say nothing at all about the functions of local government. There’s no attempt at all to consider managing waste collection and disposal, public footpaths or looking after parks let alone public loos or providing dog poo bins. The Centre for Cities seem to think local government is all about ‘functional economic units’ and levelling up the economy and nothing to do with providing a set of services to people in a given locality. And these services matter to people – in 24 years as a local councillor very few residents contacted me about economic development, but plenty did about dog muck, potholes and trees.
It seems that the Centre for Cities has designed proposals that reflect its interests not proposals that reflect the interests of the people living in England’s towns, cities and suburbs. There is no hue and cry from the public for reorganising local government into tidy unitary authorities and, after years of listening to people in Keighley complain about getting lumped into Bradford, I’m also sure that if anyone at the genuinely local level is thinking about reorganisation it will be to oppose creating bigger, more distant and less responsive local councils.