Let's think carefully about the best scale for delivering public services

By Abdool Kara | 20 July 2020
  • Abdool Kara

I expect that readers of The MJ live in some sort of home. That home is likely to be on a street, maybe as part of a block or an estate. It will be in a neighbourhood or perhaps a village or parish. It might be part of a borough or town or city, or maybe a rural county.

Why does this matter? Well, for two main reasons: firstly, nations have to determine the appropriate geographic level for the administration of public services. Sometimes these will be at the individual or household or property level; at other times on a much larger footprint. Much thought has gone into this over the years. We can see clear thinking in some case, such as allotment provision at parish level, while transport is planned at county level or larger. Sometimes there is less obvious logic – why, for example, in two-tier areas are leisure facilities provided by districts but libraries by counties?

In my recent evidence to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee hearing on devolution, I suggested that from the National Audit Office (NAO) perspective, we had seen a lack of sophisticated thinking by Government about the level at which individual COVID-19 initiatives were best delivered – whether from the centre as a default assumption, or from other levels of governance and accountability closer to the public. It looks like this may be a significant theme in our ongoing COVID-19-related work programme.

The second reason is its relationship to the ongoing debates about local government reorganisation and the most appropriate scale for the delivery of different services.

As administrative bureaucracies cannot exist at every layer possible, whatever size local authorities are will inevitably be a compromise between various economies and diseconomies of scale.

Mapping English local authority numbers over time shows a decrease from 1,245 authorities prior to the 1974 reorganisation down to 339 today, with further decreases to come from planned, though delayed, reorganisations in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, not to mention the ongoing discussions around further devolution deals and the unitarisation that may accompany them. This is a curve heading in only one direction.

Abdool Kara is executive leader for local services at the NAO

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