There has been a lot of talk about reorganising local government with the government planning to publish a 'white paper' on recovery and devolution some time soon. Every local government pundit is talking up the idea of a wholesale reorganisation of English local government with the preference from Lonon-based think tank sorts for a warmed over Redcliffe Maud scheme of unitaries some of which will be grouped together into combined authorities with sub-regional mayors along the lines of Manchester and Birmingham.
Meanwhile the county council takeoever of districts continues to make the news - Buckinghamshire has seen its districts go and is now a single ("powerful", as the describing goes) authority. Elsewhere there are rows in Kent, Essex and North Yorkshire over a transition to unitary councils. And all of this debate is conducted amidst a febrile debate as to how councils are "vital" or "central" to local economic development and "levelling up".
For me all this completely misses the point of local government. The Local Government Chronicle gets in on the act when it says the government's reforms to planning "...will blunt district councils' most powerful tool – the ability to control new development." As if running parks, emptying bins, picking up litter, running leisure centres and administering a host of licencing regulations aren't of any consequence next to stopping houses being built.
At the heart of the argument for unitary councils is the idea that it is expensive and inefficient to have all these little districts littering the countryside - one big, grand and centralised council is what we need to save money and 'drive better services'. I once believed this argument but, after 25 years as a member (including periods as an executive portfolio holder, deputy leader and leader of the opposition) of a big grand unitary authority, I fail to see any evidence that we did the things currently done by district councils better than those councils. Or that we do them more cheaply.
Indeed, as I visit other places, I glance at what they have out in these inefficient and expensive district councils. Mostly they seem to have better leisure facilities, superior recycling services, nice parks and tidy streets. I know this isn't a scientific study but I do get the sinking feeling that the call for unitary authorities is about trying to fix the financial instability of county councils rather than get better local government. County councils are in a mess because social services are underfunded and, unlike unitary councils such as Bradford, they've not been able to shift money away from parks, leisure and cleaning the streets into caring for elderly ladies, disabled kids and abused girls.
And there's no evidence we get better government by having councils that are further away from the residents they serve and increasingly focused on providing support for a few thousand vulnerable people rather than visible services to the whole population. Ignore the chat about economic development, devolution and placemaking: local government in England is mostly about social services.
International comparisons are always tricky but, on the question of efficiency, there is some validity. Demographer Wendell Cox has reported on a study of small authorities in Ohio that had some interesting findings about value for money and effectiveness of governance:
Financial performance is examined by the size and type of local government, using median measures. This analysis is provided at the overall state level and within metropolitan areas. The data generally shows that current expenditures, local taxes and long-term debt per capita are higher in the larger jurisdictions. Moreover, in similar sized jurisdictions, townships tend to have lower current expenditures, local taxes and long-term debt than municipalities of similar population.Put simply, there's no evidence from this study that big is better. I would argue further that, because English local government is so skewed by under-resourced social services, the impact of creating unitary authorities without first resolving the funding of care will be further cuts in local services previously protected by the two-tier structure in local government. Big councils can rightly criticise the government grant regime as a major contributor to cuts in visible services but the process of creating new councils from partly protected district councils will only act to reduce the scope and quality of visible services.
The best illustration of how this might work out comes from Swindon, a long standing unitary council, which has created a series of large parish councils able to raise taxes to run the sort of services (parks, litter picking, flower beds and so forth) that are provided by many district councils. One councillor explained the reasoning succinctly:
“Social care services are costing more and more every year. This means that we need to find more money and that means reductions in those services that everyone can see such as grass cutting and street cleaning. You can’t have your cake and eat it. We have put forward a proposal to fund these nice things.”Swindon council has, in effect, reinvented district councils. Everywhere with larger parishes has seen the same happening as these councils stick up their precepts to take over services that would otherwise have ceased under cuts from unitary councils. The resolution to the increasing cost of social care isn't to take over districts and cut their services but to get better funding for these services. The answer isn't reorganisation or faux-devolution but a realistic approach to a set of services that my Dad predicted in the 1970s would kill local government.