Reorganising Local Government complexity

The UK Experience by Malcolm Morley*

UK Local Government is complex, particularly where there are Parish or Town Councils, District or Borough Councils and County Councils all operating within the same areas – each Council having its own separate responsibilities and each competing for the mantle of community leader.

It was with this complexity in mind that the Government sought to invite Local Government, other than Parish and Town Councils to bid for unitary status. Why not Parish and Town Councils you might ask?

The answer would probably be that they are too small and limited in their range of responsibilities. This raises the issue of what the Government’s vision for such Councils might be.

The ‘competition’ therefore rested between District/Borough Councils often covering a single or small number of communities and County Councils covering large geographical areas containing many communities but separate communities that frequently illustrate great socio economic and geographic diversity.

The competition was supposed to provide clarity for the communities served in terms of the Council responsible for community leadership.

Great emphasis has been placed upon the Government’s desire for Councils to be ‘place shapers’.

Indeed, the long awaited Lyons Report reaffirmed the need for Councils to enhance their ‘place shaping’ role and to engage with the communities served to re-energise civic pride and involvement.

Many Councils decided not to bid for unitary status, instead seeking to identify ways to make the current system work more effectively.

Many recognised that the disruption and cost associated with reorganisation was likely to be disproportionate to the benefits achieved.

Relationships between Councils needed to be improved and not to be put at risk unnecessarily.

The Secretary of State has announced that 16 Councils have been shortlisted for further consideration.

This means that in 13 areas of the country unitary Local Government is likely to be introduced.

While those Councils that bid and were rejected at the first hurdle might be embarrassed, an unexpected twist has been introduced.

The Secretary of State has selected a number of competing bids in the same geographical county to go forward.

This situation is the worst possible for relationships within Local Government. Competing bids in Bedfordshire, Cheshire and Northumberland have gone out for consultation.

This confusion is compounded in geographical Counties where the bid from a single District/Borough Council has been allowed to go ahead. Success for that single Council will have significant implications for the other District/Boroughs within that County area as well as for the County Council.

Confused? Think about the public!

The business cases put forward by those shortlisted are now being subjected to increasingly acrimonious scrutiny from competing Councils.

Once again the argument within Local Government is focused on the economics of service provision rather than on the roles of Councils as community leaders, ‘place shapers’ and service commissioners.

Whatever the outcome, will communities care about which organisation provides their services?

Will they feel more engaged with, and empowered by, Local Government?

Surely the real question should be: Will they be more effectively led, supported and facilitated by their Councils to evolve to meet their aspirations and potential?

*Malcolm Morley is Chief Executive of Harlow District Council and can be contacted via the Editor, email The views expressed in
this article are not necessarily those of his employer