Levelling up local government in England – by Centre for Cities

TL:DR – Proposals in this paper risk solidifying Conservative rural rule over urban and suburban areas, which if implemented only create an incentive for a future non-Conservative government to overhaul them once again…which is a sort of reverse of what happened in the 1960s & 1970s.

The publication by the Centre for Cities is here. It relates to my earlier blogpost on the reorganisation of local government in England, which is a Government policy. In principle I have no problem with it – actually I think it’s long overdue. The problem is the way that ministers seem to be going about it. i.e. far too rushed and in the middle of the worst pandemic in over a century. The District Councils Network takes a similar view. This also follows a decade of austerity which means that the local government sector simply does not have the policy capacity to do a good job of it. The same is true with Whitehall – my old workplace (the new Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) lost about half its headcount in austerity…and then Brexit happened which sucked in so much policy capacity that there was not much left for domestic policy.

The first thing that inevitably caught the eye was the map on p6.

The proposed amalgamation of Huntingdonshire with East Cambs, South Cambs, and Cambridge City was something I found laughable not just politically but given the discussion around the economic geography being one of the key components of the reorganisation, Newmarket remains in Suffolk despite being on Cambridge’s doorstep. The reasons are historical today but political in the two centuries before.

Look further east of Cambridge and you see Norfolk separated into ‘Greater Norwich’ and I guess what is left of Norfolk after something has taken a chunk out of it. Yet Suffolk remains untouched.

“What does the history say?”

In 2017 I wrote a blogpost on Lost Cambridge on mapping what were future historical plans for Cambridge (and county). The direction of travel of fewer, larger councils covering bigger populations over larger geographical areas has been the same since the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.

One of my favourite maps of Cambridgeshire from 1944/45, how the old historical county of Cambridgeshire was administered, with four shire level counties and tiny little districts that used to be even more numerous and smaller than the ones shown on the map. And below that you had your parish councils.

‘Rules is rules’

The suggested rules of a framework for reform in the paper are:

Item 3 will be particularly controversial in some areas. But the driver for this has come from the business community who have basically said that they need to know who to approach or who to hold accountable when discussing business-related issues. The sceptics and cynics might respond by saying it makes it easier to find out who to bribe!

Item 4 is the most interesting one because if local government boundaries should match more closely local economies, then really the best thing to do is to start from scratch rather than accepting the boundaries of existing counties and relying on those councils to come up with the proposals. And previous rounds of local government reform have shown us what data sets need collecting and analysing to give us a picture of what local and regional economic geographies look like. The Parry Lewis Study from the 1970s of the Cambridge Sub-Region produced a number of charts that reflected an economic geography out of sync with the political and administrative boundaries and structures. The map below illustrates commuting into Cambridge.

Even in the 1970s, Newmarket (Suffolk), Haverhill (Suffolk), Saffron Walden (Essex) and Royston (Hertfordshire) can all be picked out on the map. With the road improvements since then, including the completion of the M11, along with population growth, those numbers will have only increased in the past 50 years.

When you look at the map of commuting patterns, it’s clear that a City of Cambridge Unitary Council based on the existing Cambridge City boundaries (set before WWII) would not be appropriate, politically tempting as it might be for opponents of the Conservatives. (As an aside, I don’t think the current voting systems for local councils work for any of the parties – disproportionately penalising the Conservatives inside Cambridge City, and doing the opposite outside Cambridge City, meaning we’ve got a very polarised political culture in the county that serves no one. My preference is for the system the London Assembly has – a constituency vote and a list vote).

On bringing forward proposals

Number 2 would cause an almighty political stink if it were adopted. In Cambridgeshire, all that would happen is the existing county council would attach the minimum number of wards around Peterborough that they could get away with, and use what was left of the rural majority to impose their will (as they currently do) on the non-Conservative-voting areas in and around Cambridge. Which in the longer term would serve no one as it would simply encourage a future non-Conservative administration in Whitehall to change it all over again. From a central government perspective, what it should want is a system that actually means less work and less micromanagement of local government rather than more. Far better for ministers to be in a position to say “That’s a matter for the local council – go and contact them!” whenever a journalist queries something. At the moment everything points to Whitehall. It does not need to. Furthermore, the lessons of the current pandemic have already demonstrated a much greater need for devolution of powers and spending to a local level to respond as and when to local outbreaks. And we’re already seeing a rise in cases again.

Devolution of financial powers does not go nearly far enough

Council tax and business rates remain untouched – even though the council tax regime was only supposed to be temporary. Ministers should use this opportunity to come up with something better to base local taxation on than an index of house prices from the early 1990s. If they can’t even do that, they should not bother with any reform at all. Tinkering at the edges would do more damage than good, and be a waste of everyone’s time and resources – things we can ill-afford in a pandemic and a climate emergency.

The above is from the executive summary, but does nothing on overhauling how local councils should be funded in an age of online global commerce. We are going through a massive economic shock where retail firms are closing all over the place due to the restrictions from the CV19 response. But many firms were already in trouble anyway, as economist Frances Coppola explains with the now defunct owner of a number of high profile shopping centres. Too many firms were asset stripped by private equity firms and loaded with debt. I still find it astonishing for example how Pizza Express was legally allowed to be loaded with so much debt.

Then there is the collapse in the value of office property as more and more people who have been able to work from home have decided to stay in home or in their locality rather than undertake the stupendously long commutes into big cities. And given the way communications technology is going, don’t expect a fast return to expensive office properties anytime soon – especially if it means people are able to spend more time with their families and in their communities. At the same time, the share prices and the profits of the big multinational tech firms have soared in this crisis. That is a massive transfer of spending and wealth from the high street to Wall Street. And the only multinational institution with the economic, legal and political power to face them down is one that the Government is making an absolute hash of leaving. As I wrote earlier, having a Cabinet Minister announcing on the floor of the House that the Government is going to break international lawis ***not normal***.

The paper isn’t all bad news – there are some very important and sound principles in there

The first is the Nottingham case study – one that illustrates just how complicated the reform of local government actually is. One of Whitehall’s blind spots is that too many civil servants that live and work in London have very limited experience of living and working with two tier or even three tier (parish and town councils) local government. Yet what matters is what the public thinks – the public that has better and more interesting things to do than ponder over the structure, functions, purposes, and financing of local government in England! It speaks ill of successive ministers and governments that through their negligence they increased the complexity of local government – mainly for political expediency. Hence Cambridgeshire looking like below:

Diagram by Smarter Cambridge Transport.

The second is the requirement for the Whitehall departments that devolve powers to local government to reduce in size accordingly. The creation of a Ministry for England was something I recall pondering over a decade ago when the old Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was still around.

The problem is that the above would struggle without significant devolution of revenue-raising powers – in particular making those powers genuinely independent from The Treasury. Other countries have the separation of powers set out in national constitutions (eg Germany) which prevents federal levels of government interfering with regional and local tiers that are protected by the constitution. Ironically the appalling behaviour of ministers in the current Government – in particular in the field of procurement under the emergency powers granted to deal with the Pandemic have strengthened the case for a written constitution. In particular holding powerful ministerial appointees to account. That being the case, a further question is whether the sound and comprehensive reform and radical improvement of local government in England can take place without a similar overhaul of our national political institutions.





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