A visit to Barrow, on the south west tip of Cumbria, allows admiration of the splendid sandstone town hall, a potent symbol of civic pride. Barrow, part of Cumbria (Lancashire until 1974), is a two-hour road or rail journey, from the county’s administrative centre Carlisle. It is a distinctive place, founded on iron and steel, but since the late 19th century on shipbuilding – and totally different in socio-economic history and culture from Workington and Whitehaven to the north, Kendal and Penrith to the east and Carlisle, in the far north-eastern corner. These towns are dotted around the circumference of the Lake District National Park.
Cumbria county and the six districts have since early 2020 acted on the assumption that remaining two-tier county areas will be reorganised on a unitary basis. Given ministerial statements about the ‘ideal size’ of between 300,000 and 500,000, the choice was a unitary Cumbria (population 500,000) or a north and south Cumbria, with 250,000 each. Whatever district councils felt about the merits of the two-tier system indications were the Government did not regard this as acceptable. In Cumbria as elsewhere, counties lobbied for county-based unitaries and districts discussed sub-county unitary options.
Either way, Barrow would cease to exist as a civic entity, with decisions about issues affecting Barrovians taken not in the town, but (in the unitary county option) in far distant Carlisle.
Carlisle would also cease to exist as a governmental unit. Under the Government’s original plans, a similar fate would befall Preston, Burnley, Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich, Ipswich, Lincoln, Exeter and many other ‘real’ places which would disappear from the local government map, as with Shrewsbury, Crewe, Northampton and Durham city, to name but four. There is nowhere in Europe where towns and cities of this size and status do not have their own multi-functional local authorities; why is this so wrong for England?
The County Councils’ Network (CCN) commissioned report Making Counties Count argues counties provide a ‘natural, fundamental identifiable’ basis for local government – conveniently disregarding that the same argument can more powerfully be made for towns and cities. The MORI research for the Banham Commission in the 1990s revealed a much stronger sense of identity to respondents’ town and city than to the county. Community identity shows towns and cities count, not counties.
A recent Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) ministerial statement indicated a government rethink on reorganisation. Only Somerset, North Yorkshire and Cumbria were invited to submit unitary local government proposals because considerable ‘progress’ has been made to this end, although that progress was influenced by the expectation that a unitary outcome would be required or imposed rather than by a desire to see one. In the remaining 21 counties, proposals are not required nor expected.
Local government secretary Robert Jenrick wrote: ‘I am aware that other areas have been discussing ideas about unitary reform. However, given the pressure councils face this winter with the pandemic, I believe it would not be right at this time for them to further progress…the pandemic must be Whitehall’s and town halls’ number one priority at present.’
The wisdom of this judgment is to be applauded.
The letter reveals a major reassessment of the basis for reorganisation decisions.
- ‘localism and devolution are at the heart of this Government’s levelling up agenda, based on a recognition that local areas know best their local circumstances’
- ‘it is important that those seeking to pursue locally-led proposals can demonstrate that there is broad local support for reform. It is up to local areas to decide on whether or not they want to reform the structure’
- ‘unitary structures are not and will not be regarded as compulsory or required by central government reform should not involve top down Whitehall solutions being imposed on local areas’
This guidance is totally different from that previously issued, where there was a government commitment to large unitary authorities, based on cost assumptions alone. Now retaining two-tiers is acceptable if there is no broad agreement about an alternative. The prospect of unitary authorities the size of Kent or Essex, an absurd option, has faded, at least for the time being.
Our review of independent research, set out in the report Bigger is not Better makes clear that the search for an ‘ideal council size’ is as pointless as the search for the ‘philosopher’s stone’. There is no consistent evidence suggesting an optimum size. Indeed, the question ‘how big should local authorities be?’ is the wrong starting point as it depends on your conception of the primary purpose of local government. In addition to operating as service providers or commissioners, local authorities have a crucial place-shaping role, responding to the wide range of social, economic and environmental needs. Place-shaping must be a major consideration in local government reorganisation, incorporating a requirement that local authorities should reflect real places with which people identify, not artificial constructs, with which people have no affinity.
In the light of the Government’s change of approach, it is hoped that in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, there emerges a view that in the current fraught circumstances preparing reorganisation is a pointless distraction; such a view should be understood and accepted at the centre. The civic oblivion of Barrow and Carlisle would be mercifully avoided.
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