On proposed local government reorganisation in England

TL:DR – An exercise of this scale affecting so many people over an extended period of time requires a much greater evidence base along with much greater involvement of not just those in the sector, but with the general public as well.

In the summer of 2017 I complained that Cambridge could not have nice things because of the county level governance structures. Later on that year, I wrote a blogpost stating that Cambridgeshire County Council could not serve North Cambridgeshire and Cambridge City at the same time following an episode of what the Liberal Democrats in opposition to the county Conservatives described as a piece of civic asset stripping.

Reorganisation of local council powers and boundaries used to be much more frequent during the 20th Century – up until the mid-1970s.

Cambridge’s story is told in this wonderful old publication from the 1950s on how the county and city boundaries changed. And Cambridge borough used to be very small indeed. It was only in 1911 that it started expanding properly on the back of a century of population growth that quadrupled the size of the town.

Above – the Cambridge (Extension) Order as approved by the Local Government Board of 1911. This formally incorporated Chesterton Urban District, along with parts of Trumpington and what are now Coleridge & Queen Edith’s wards – then given the sad name of “Cambridge without ward”.

The map below shows the bid Cambridge Borough Council made for extending its boundaries (shaded in blue) in 1945.

Above – proposals submitted to the Local Government Boundary Commission of 1946.

Above – the old county councils and district councils as of 1945. Note how much smaller the district councils are compared to their small county councils all sitting within the historical county boundary of Cambridgeshire – one that in the mid-1970s would be brought back for the current Cambridgeshire County Council.

Why the boundaries matter

Once the boundaries are decided, then everything that follows works within them. What would Cambridge’s housing pattern look like on a map if the 1945 proposals to extend the city boundaries both northwards and southwards been accepted? Would the housing estates have expanded fast enough to force what is now the A14 (built in the 1970s) to have taken a route north of Histon & Impington?

The first proper regional plan for Cambridge was Davidge’s report of 1934 – and it has a series of maps that look like the one below on proposed road improvements.

Above – proposed improvements included a number of road bridges over railway lines. One of the most important ones proposed was at Foxton – we’re still waiting for it to be built over 80 years later.

So the moral of that local history tale is that boundaries matter – and powers matter as well.

Following the Second World War, local government went into somewhat of a decline as described in Half a Century of Municipal Decline 1935-85, which was published half a century after the celebratory book on a Century of Municipal Progress 1835 – 1935, by Laski et al which marked a century of what we know as modern municipal government. This is also reflected in the architecture of municipal government – see this book on Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls. Dr Tristram Hunt, the former MP wrote an incredible book on the rise and fall of the Victorian City – Building Jerusalem, and noted towards the end that modern municipal architecture in the early 21st Century is anonymous, bland, could be built anywhere, and is away from the public. This contrasts with the earlier generations of town halls that had market squares next to them. The contrast between Cambridge’s guildhall (including the rejected designs) vs South Cambridge District Council’s HQ stuck out on the edge of a windswept business park where local bus services fear to rumble, reflects this.

“So what about the reorganisation?”

A number of reports have already been published by a number of organisations.

Blogs and comment pieces also include Ed Hammond at the Centre for Public Scrutiny, Nadine Smith at the Centre for Public Impact, the Centre for Cities on Where Next for Devolution?, and also a speech by Michael Gove on public service where he comes back to the policy of moving civil servants out of Whitehall.

“Have ministers already decided what they want to do?”

The cynic in me says they have, and that the report by the County Councils Network (covering mainly Conservative-led county councils) simply rubber stamps the proposed policy by conveniently identifying the financial savings by turning county councils covering broad areas into monster unitary councils…but without the independent and wide-ranging tax raising powers. In that regard, it provides ministers with the political cover to make an unpopular decision that will have a number of local government networks and groups in uproar. Don’t forget that a number of members of the House of Lords are also elected local councillors so if they wanted to cross-examine ministers in more details on the proposals, they can.

As interesting as the numbers are in the CCN report by PwC, it takes as given many of the existing structures and conventions. It does not, for example challenge how local government is financed beyond what has already been debated with business rates. The system of council taxes based on the value of property bands indexed to 1991 remains deeply unsatisfactory. (Ask any politician to justify why 1991 and see what they say). Until local councils have revenue-raising powers independent from The Treasury and Whitehall, with such powers being able to fund properly local public services (in particular ones required by law – statutory services), town hall will continue to look to Whitehall for both special deals and even policy initiative. Part of the problem is ideological: The Conservatives do not want ‘a socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer in every other town hall up and down the land’ – hence no movement towards either a land value tax or a tax on wealth or incomes.

What would a proper review involve?

As David Higham showed in the post below, the Royal Commission on Local Government in England had a significant research and evidence base – and that commission ran between 1966-69.

If you look closely on the Internet Archive, some of the texts above have been digitised so users can do keyword searches.

I don’t intend to give an exhaustive list of things such a review would need to cover, but suffice to say the system, structures, powers, and functions of local government cannot be looked at in isolation. Ministers have found that out the hard way with their botched responses to the CoronaVirus pandemic, where too many of them revealed their ignorance of what local councils do and are responsible for. Hence expensive contracts on things like test and trace being signed with private companies when the resources would have been far better being directed through local councils.

While the system of Regional Government Offices have long been scrapped (I started my civil service career in the East of England office in Cambridge), no adequate replacement has been found to cover policies and large infrastructure projects that cross county boundaries. For example England’s Economic Heartland, a strange grouping that other parts of the country might take issue with as far as the name goes. Essentially it is seen as the missing link of the over-hyped Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle – long since broken following the so-called Beeching cuts (though some argue it was Conservative Minister for Transport Ernest Marples with massive conflicts of interest in the road haulage industry who was responsible. See transport journalist and historian Christian Wolmaar here).

There are also issues with water resources – something that former Undertones’ Feargal Sharkey is taking on the Environment Agency and water companies over with regards to our polluted chalk streams. One of the complaints a number of us – myself included – have made is that it is not clear where the buck stops. Who is the person with the authority to compel water companies to limit extraction? Who is the person with the authority to stop house building until new water resources come on stream or until new water recycling and saving measures have been installed?

Lack of substantive evaluations of combined authorities and metro mayors

I can’t pretend to be a fan of the current set up for Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. I spoke out in the media on a number of occasions. That aside, before looking to set up similar structures across other counties, ministers really needed to commission independent evaluations of the existing metro mayors and combined authorities. The slides from the Centre for Cities on the future of devolution make for interesting reading though again works from the perspective of accepting the existing model rather than starting afresh as a Royal Commission would have done, doing international comparisons as well.

Finally…

Will the reorganisation lead to a simplification of local public sector service structures so that they are understandable to the general public? Because the fragmentation of public services through privatisation and contracting out – on the back of flawed economic theories on privatisation, have since been found to have a whole host of negative externalities and hidden costs. (Not least the exploitation of natural monopolies). If ministers are as pro-transparency as their rhetoric would have us believe, then having very clear lines of political accountability at a local level are essential. Because when faced with the diagram below, it’s no wonder in Cambridgeshire at least, the public are unclear as to who to hold accountable for what.

Who is accountable for what in the above structure? Via Smarter Cambridge Transport.

%d bloggers like this: