Those who were waiting for a round of applause from Whitehall for the sterling efforts of local government in the pandemic are going to disappointed.
Local government minister Simon Clarke made clear at the virtual Local Government Association (LGA) conference that change is coming to local councils and it’s going to be brutal. As Government Svengali, Dominic Cummings indicated in his attitude to all layers of government that ‘a hard rain is coming’ and it’s going to fall most heavily in the shires.
The Government seems to have fallen in love with the idea of big unitary councils and elected mayors. Part of the reason lies in the success of Ben Houchen, the mayor of the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Elected unexpectedly in 2017, he has proved to be a popular advocate for his region, especially in terms of economic regeneration. His success as a Tory candidate was an early indication of the weak foundations of the Red Wall of Labour constituencies in the North East.
However, this new-found Government enthusiasm for local government re-organisation is grim news for the multitude of mainly Conservative district councils.
Once the White Paper on devolution and local recovery is published in the autumn, expect a clash of the councils in the shires, with competing bids for unitary status. Unlike previous rounds of restructuring, this one will be predominately finance-driven. Northamptonshire will not be the last part of the country where Section 114 notices are the principal cause of reorganisation.
The existing unitary councils may well be advised to stay alert. The minister and the Government have expressed a strong preference for councils to be between 300,000 to 400,000 in population size. You don’t need to be a mathematician to see this reduces the number of unitaries from the current 150 to less than 100.
There may be a bit of lobbying in the autumn, but if I were one of the 30 existing unitary councils, or a London and metropolitan borough with a population of less than 200,000 I would be nervous. And, if I were one of the cluster of smaller unitary councils in areas like Berkshire and Cleveland, I’d be having sleepless nights.
This is a Government that believes in creative destruction. Enjoy summer. It’s not looking good for the rest of the year.
Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics