The County Councils Network (CCN) commissioned three reports in support of its advocacy of ‘new unitary authorities of size and scale broadly based on existing county boundaries’ (to quote their September 18th letter to the Prime Minister), the most wide-ranging of which is: Making Counties Count. The others deal with limited elements of the CCN’s case: a familiar set of speculative savings forecasts from moving to large unitaries, and a report unconvincingly arguing that counties are ideally equipped to lead post-COVID economic regeneration.
The sub-title of Making Counties Count - weaving a new tapestry for local government - is singularly inappropriate. Tapestry-weaving implies a subtle and painstaking process of blending threads of different colours. There is no subtlety about Making Counties Count, which demands across-the-board establishment of unitary authorities based on existing county councils, whatever their geographical configuration or size.
The arguments made in the report involve a series of misconceptions, which must be highlighted before decisions are made about the future of local government in the shire counties.
In its enthusiasm to promote the virtues of unitary authorities, the report states that there are 126 single-tier authorities in England. There are in fact 55, including the county (or part-county)-based unitaries established since 2006. Making Counties Count appears to include in its calculations 32 London boroughs and 36 metropolitan districts. But in London, there is the Greater London Assembly, headed by an elected mayor; in the six former metropolitan county areas there are combined authorities, headed by an elected mayor. Election makes these bodies de facto local authorities, as is the case with the combined authorities which have been established in the Tees Valley, the West of England and Peterborough/Cambridgeshire. At present, less than 20% of England’s population lives in unitary authorities.
Despite carping criticisms directed at it our two-tier system of local government has proved remarkably resilient; it keeps bouncing back! In Greater London and the six metropolitan counties, the two-tier system was abandoned, replaced by (so-called) unitary authorities, a designation which conveniently ignored the wide variety of joint arrangements necessary in both cases. The error of judgment was recognised when the Greater London Authority (GLA) was established in 2000 and again from 2015 when combined authorities were introduced in the metropolitan areas, with powers to carry out the key functions of their predecessors. The resilience of a tiered system reflects an eminently sensible division of labour: certain strategic functions (public transport, highways planning, economic development) can be run at a city regional level, while personal and environmental services can be delivered at another tier sensitive to local needs and preferences.
Making Counties Count dismisses two-tier local government in familiar terms. It is no longer ‘fit for purpose’ (but what purpose?). The division of functions between the tiers is ‘confusing to the public’ But there are now so many different agencies operating across the fractured landscape of public services that tiered local government is the easiest to navigate. Unitary authorities would make a marginal contribution to reducing confusion, which is easy to resolve anyway through the internet and social media. However confused the public may have been in the 1990s over ‘who does what’, this did not, with very few exceptions, prevent them from expressing an overwhelming preference for the status quo when presented with unitary alternatives, nor did it prevent them from preferring tiered local government where referendum have been held.
The report’s response to dealing with the very real problem of the localist deficit inherent in large county-based unitaries is to strengthen town and parish councils and/or by establishing devolved area committees. The CCN letter to the Prime Minister echoes this in a reference to ’empowered town and parish councils’, which would enable unitary counties to be ‘genuinely local’.
The CCN has rehearsed this argument regularly but it is unsustainable. There are some 9,000 parish and town councils in England, providing a vital set of services and roles for their communities, but they vary greatly in size, capacity, finances, and the nature of their areas. Some will be very able and very willing to take on extra responsibilities, but many will be reluctant, or lack the capacity to do so. In the unlikely event of a county succeeding in establishing a comprehensive network of empowered town and parish councils, they would have simply recreated a two-tier system, albeit one with much more complex administration problems.
Area committees can have weaknesses and must avoid being a talking shop. Few parent councils devolve significant budgets or powers to such committees which can be abolished at the whim of the parent council. The fatal flaw in the area committee/ parish council enhancement position is that if you need to do that you admit you are too big.
County council areas are extremely diverse. They often constitute what’s left over when city regions, cities or large towns were detached from their areas of jurisdiction. Thus, we have the doughnut or polo mint counties such as Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, encircling but not including the city at the centre. Cumbria, with the Lake District at its centre and its main centres of population dotted around the perimeter, provides a different example of the ‘polo mint’ county. There are counties which are wholly or partly within the catchment area of London, or a provincial metropolis (Hertfordshire, Surrey, Hampshire, Lancashire), which cover largely rural areas lacking an economic focus (Worcestershire, North Yorkshire, Devon) and the large counties of Kent and Essex which comprise a multitude of different identifiable places. In few cases do shire counties make sense as areas suited for strategic economic regeneration initiatives. A reliance on size as a justification is an inadequate substitute for lack of strategic functional coherence.
The report makes great play of predicted savings resulting from large unitary authorities. The logical endpoint of such modelling is that maximum savings would result from a unitary authority covering the whole of England – an English Parliament if you will. The important point here is to distinguish between the ‘evidence’ cited in speculative forecasting and the genuine evidence which emerges from academic research on the topic. In our review of 300 research papers and reports, we found no consistent or conclusive results suggesting that increases in council size are a guarantee of improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, performance or cost reduction. But plenty of evidence to show the bigger councils become the greater the damage to local democracy.
There is every reason to challenge the enthusiasm for large county-based unitaries which dominates the pages of Making Counties Count. England is already an outlier in the size of local government and its obsession with unitary authorities. A recent OECD survey found multi-tiered systems of local government the dominant form across the globe in comparable nations. A move to county-based unitaries would draw local government away from recognisable communities and increase the drift to meaningless conglomerates. Local government, as we have always understood it, would cease to exist.
Steve Leach is emeritus professor of local government at De Montfort University, and Colin Copus is emeritus professor of local politics at De Montfort University and visiting professor at Ghent University.