Plans for unitary local government need to support wider public service reform – and this needs time
writes Tony Blake.
The government has reignited the unitary council debate but is local government reorganisation a guilty pleasure? We all know that the discussions distract from business as usual and that structures do not themselves improve outcomes. Yet it’s coming around again and plans are already taking shape in many of the remaining two-tier areas.
The history of local government reorganisation has been littered with compromise and the legacy of divisive debates that, despite all the discussion, have not been properly settled. There is a risk that this will play out once more and it’s a risk that is heightened by the pressing issue of financial strains of Covid-19.
That heightened financial pressure may become a core part of an argument that two-tier local government is no longer affordable. Yet if a county and, say, five districts in an area are collectively projecting a cumulative deficit of £40m over the next five years, how does reorganisation help? If a reorganisation business case shows savings of £20m per annum, that only deals with half of the problem.
An answer should lie in a local narrative about how new unitary structures create the conditions for better local public services. With more joined up services come scale, clarity of strategy, and a focus on front line action rather than co-ordination.
Yet quantifying the benefit of that isn’t as easy as counting up the savings from a consolidated back office, fewer elected members or senior managers. It can also be a difficult concept to land convincingly. I know from councillors I’ve spoken to and been questioned by in the course of various assignments that there is scepticism, after years of savings, about how unitary structures can lead to further transformational savings.
What is needed is a vision for how unitary structures can be one aspect of a platform for wider change that supports health and social care integration; helps communities to build preventative action; and supports local sustainable and inclusive growth. Alongside is the question of how this can be supported with devolution of powers and funding from the centre.
Many aspects of a vision will already exist in cross cutting strategies, such as health and wellbeing, community safety, integrated transport and action on climate change. It is important to build on these to create a shared understanding with local partners of the dynamics of prevention – the enablers, barriers and where the benefits can be realised.
This means that early conversations need to be with partners and should refine the collective understanding of the key aspects of the area – its opportunities as well as challenges. Get this right and you can have a framework against which to test what sort of local government structure has a role to play in improving those outcomes. While it may be difficult to quantify the savings and timescale for realising them in the local system, it is quite legitimate to identify them as part of a jigsaw that will make the wider change, and all parts of the system, more sustainable.
The Government’s White Paper on Devolution and Local Recovery needs to help here. One of the long-standing criteria for any structural change proposal is that it must improve an area’s local government. The language here is showing its age. Improved local government needs to be couched in terms of supporting local government’s contribution to better and more sustainable local public service delivery.
None of this is easy and there’s a further piece of help that the Government needs to provide. Demonstrating this effectively will need time. Although the imperatives for economic recovery are urgent, a rush to make a business case to meet a short deadline will not help. The related message to local government and partners is that if you find you’re being asked to make a proposal on an unrealistic timetable – push back. Explain what you need time to do. Explain that not getting it right will only mean more compromise and less effective focus on the frontline.