Local government: too big and too small?

By Professor Colin Talbot | 26 January 2022

Spoiler: British local governments are the largest in Europe. They are also arguably the smallest. This is the wrong way round.

Too big?

According to data from the OECD and European Commission, in 2017 the UK had the largest local governments, by population size, of any in Europe. Compared to the other big European states, UK local government is more than 22 times the size of the size of Italy’s, the nearest comparable country to us (see table below).

Averages can be misleading, hiding very wide variations. In England in 2017 Isles of Scilly Council was the smallest local authority by population with 2,259 people and Kent CC was the largest with 1,554,636 people.

But, the average size of local governments in Italy, Germany, Spain and France is 5,667. Which is eerily close to Plato’s ideal size for a demos: 5,040 adults. Robin Dunbar, the evolutionary anthropologist, also talks about societies of about 5,000 people.

Although Plato and Dunbar were thinking about these issues two-and-a-half millennia apart, the reason for their similar thinking are fairly obvious – the limitations of human interactions grow exponentially with group size. This makes it harder to build real human relationships and a sense of co-ownership of the locality.

There are several reasons why having a demos as small as 5,000 or so, may today, be too small: these include modern technology, town and city sizes, among others.

But the outsized nature of UK local government has consequences for how well democracy can work locally and how much citizens can really participate in the demos.

So, there are good reasons why our average local demos can and should be smaller than it currently is. Maybe not as small as the ideal demos, but it could be much closer to the people than it is now.

But instead of moving towards more local democracy, the UK is moving to larger, less local, units and less democracy.

Too small?

Over the past four decades, local government has gradually had what it does and what it is responsible for, eroded.

First to go was housing, as Margaret Thatcher’s Government introduced ‘right to buy’ in the 1980s and what council housing was left was gradually hived off. Councils’ regulation of private sector homebuilding has also been reduced.

The three big areas of state expansion in the 1945-1970 period were education, social protection and health.

In education, polytechnics expanded. While not directly run by local government, they had strong links to them prior to their 1992 conversion into universities. Other parts of higher and further education were steadily removed from local government influence.

Schools have also been hived off from local government into academies, city technical colleges, free schools and university technical colleges.

Social protection was always divided between central provision of benefits and local provision of social services, including residential care. There is no obvious reason why the delivery of benefits should not be organised locally – as it in some countries, and indeed was for housing benefit – with policy and funding decided centrally. Social services, especially residential care, has largely been removed from local government and privatised.

In health, the crucial decision when the NHS was established in 1948 was to make it a national, rather than a local service. Only public health was left in the control of local government and the pandemic response saw central Government initially bypassing local public health.

Other areas of local government have also been eroded – such as local economic development, policing, planning, and so on.

There is a strong case for reversing these historic trends. Most public services like health, education, social protection, housing, and policing are essentially local. That does not mean some policies cannot be decided centrally, but with strong local involvement – as in federal Germany. But delivery can and should be locally organised.

Indeed, we could go further. It is only by historic accident that some services are organised by the central state – the most obvious being tax collection, benefits payments and prisons (in England and Wales). In other countries these are administered locally and there is no reason they could not largely be done so in the UK.

There is an argument that some services cannot be organised efficiently on too small a scale, but these can be managed through arrangements, like combined authorities.

Local government could be made much stronger and more democratically responsive by making it smaller, in population terms, and bigger, in terms of the range of public services and regulation it administers. Is it time for a much more radical rethink of the structures of Government – at all levels in the UK?

Professor Colin Talbot is professor emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester and fellow (visiting) at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School


Country / Average size of municipality (by population)

UK / 167,898

Italy / 7,617

Germany / 7,447

Spain / 5,720

France / 1,885

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