Pause with a Purpose

What’s the local vision and what structures will get us there

writes Phil Swann.

The government’s much anticipated devolution and recovery white paper looks set to be delayed. According to some reports ministers’ apparent enthusiasm for the creation of more unitary councils is rapidly waning. All of which raises a question about how local government in areas with counties and districts should respond.

In many parts of the country the signs of real government interest in reorganisation led to a flurry of activity often involving competing propositions from the two types of council. In all but a few of those places work has been paused at least until the white paper is published. Councils which decided not to act on the basis of Ministerial speeches are happy with their call.

The question now is whether councils should simply wait to see what, if anything, the white paper has to say about reorganisation? Or are there ways in which the delay could become a pause with a purpose?

What has been depressing over the last few months is the predictable way in which discussions about  the case for and shape of unitary local government have played out. County councils, armed with their consultants’ reports, have argued for a single county unitary while many districts, on the basis of other consultants’ conclusions, have made the case for smaller unitaries.

This has happened despite an important lesson from history: that the nature of the process for creating new unitary arrangements can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the successor arrangements. In short, fights rarely end well.

Is it possible to imagine that in some places, the enforced delay could be used to pursue a different approach? What if, across a county area, the councils and their partners pursued a crisp and engaging collaborative process which addressed sequentially three questions:

  • What is our vision for this place in 2030 taking account of the challenges and opportunities, including the impact of Covid-19, Brexit and climate change?
  • What are the conditions necessary to deliver that vision, including the contribution of local and central government?
  • What does this mean for the future shape of local government in our area and the potential contribution of a devolution agreement with government?

Going through a process such as this will put places on the front foot when government proceeds with the next phase of devolution or local government reorganisation. They will be in a better position to use government initiatives to pursue their local ambitions rather than having to adjust their priorities to meet government requirements.

Next May’s local elections, which include the county council polls, would clearly need to be factored into the timetable, but a process such as this could help to ensure that councils are best placed to help local residents, communities and businesses through what look set to continue to be challenging times.

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