In anticipation of the Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper, the last few months have seen councils across England trying to work out the government’s intentions on future shape and size. As this ‘Goldilocks debate’ has raged, encouraged by talk of ceilings and floors fuelling county vs district disputes, like many others we’ve been draw into an argument about ‘the evidence’ on whether big is best or small is beautiful.
It is a concern that reports of a desired council minimum floor size of 250,000 would result in over 30 million people in England seeing changes to the structure and form of their local council. This leaves uncertainty about what they would get in return, as it is not yet clear if reorganisation will be a pre-requisite to devolution.
No wonder then that it increasingly looks like only places where there is already consensus that the status quo is not a sustainable option, like Somerset, may be invited to develop proposals, and that the wider devolution proposals so needed by the sector as a whole will be much later than planned.
We have always seen council size as the wrong starting point. For every council with a large population doing good things there will be one with a small population doing similar things. Likewise, there are examples of brilliant unitaries, as well as excellent counties and innovative districts. If you want an example of a productive council, the evidence suggests you can find it in all shapes, sizes and colours.
What is much more important is a commitment to building quality relationships across partners and the community to align behind shared objectives to enable better outcomes. Getting it just right needs to start with understanding the purpose and aims of local communities.
This has all been played out locally in Somerset over the past few months and years. The work the districts have pursued in Somerset initially focussed not on structures but on the issues and challenges, including raising productivity, levels of social mobility and prospects for healthy aging. By putting reform ahead of re-organisation, the Districts have developed a case for change that is distinct to Somerset’s place-based context and local priorities.
As a result, while Somerset is recommending reorganisation, its purpose is to enable a sharper focus on the priorities for reform, not simply to meet short term financial pressures. The potential to work differently needs agreement from government. Somerset wants to pursue devolution deal discussions so that any restructure is based around how places actually work and provides the right levers to increase productivity, better tailor services and work with local communities.
There needs to be a recognition that reform is about so much more than organisational change. It includes redesigning local systems to unlock new ways of working so that public services work together, guided by the needs of people, places and productivity. This needs thoughtful and considered design, focused on the unique strengths and assets of individual places and the way communities live and work – as well as a commitment to working together.
Even the most ardent proponents of reorganisation recognise that the financial benefits of structural change are outweighed two to three times by the benefits of service reform. Does it not therefore make sense - paraphrasing the maxim of Louis Sullivan - to ensure that form follows function, where if the function does not change, form does not change
The financial pressures facing the nation, and reality that the health impact of COVID-19 is just the first wave of a long tail of social and economic damage, means that the function – the purpose – of local government does need to change and we need to be bold. We must start with agreeing our reform priorities to inform choices on the right structural option. If we can get that right, the size of the rewards will be far greater than simply shifting the deckchairs.
That means agreeing what local government is for and creating the structures that can deliver for communities. If we all passionately believe in the power of local government, then it is vital to shift the debate from reorganisation to reform. That is the agenda we advocate, and that the districts in Somerset have a shared commitment to pursue in creating a Stronger Somerset.
Georgina Cox is local government expert at PA Consulting and Alex Parmley is chief executive, of South Somerset DC.