The question of whether councils are best placed to lead efforts to improve high streets always strikes me as odd because no other body has the local understanding of an area, nor the ability to balance the competing demands on the high street and co-ordinate a response that will require many local stakeholders to contribute to. Who else would do it?
But what also strikes me as incredibly odd is how local government in England, which already operates within one of the most centralised countries in the western world, takes what limited powers it does have and fragments them further across unitary, district, county and combined authorities, with little clear reason as to why different powers sit at different levels.
So, while it seems obvious that the local council should take the lead, in a number of places the question that surfaces is, which council are we talking about?
Take, for example, hypothetical efforts to attract jobs to Norwich city centre. The city council would play a co-ordinating role in finding the sites within the city centre to redevelop and craft a planning strategy to support this. But Norwich’s growing economy would need more homes. Some of these may need to be delivered in the neighbouring Broadland DC area, which Norwich’s urban footprint already spills into.
Meanwhile, the transport improvements needed to get the residents of these new homes to new jobs in central Norwich are the responsibility of Norfolk CC.
So, if Norwich City Council attracts businesses that create more jobs, but Broadland DC doesn’t build enough homes then housing becomes more expensive.
Then, if Norfolk CC’s transport plans don’t keep up with extra transport demand into Norwich, either the new jobs will go elsewhere or residents will suffer traffic congestion.
You can see how this two-tier arrangement means that any efforts to improve Norwich city centre requires agreement and co-ordination between multiple levels of local government. Practically, this may work well and there are plenty of examples of councils working in sync, but there are also examples of them not doing this. Already thin resources are spread even thinner, with the outcome being that Norwich residents get short changed.
This is also likely to affect authorities’ ability to effectively bid for central Government funding pots such as the Future High Streets Fund. Smaller teams in smaller authorities have less capacity to write bids that secure funding.
The Government promised a conversation on devolution, but because of COVID-19 this has been postponed. When it starts it should not focus around what powers should be devolved, but instead on how local government can be better organised to make use of the powers it currently holds. This means redrawing local government boundaries to reflect how people live and work today, rather than ones shaped by yesterday’s politics and economics.
Colleagues have reasonable concerns that such consolidation would create councils too large to understand a local area.
This may be true, but these concerns need to be balanced against the losses that result from a fragmented local government, and how this structure ties the hands of colleagues who work within it.
Councils are custodians of their place, and as such should be the lead for tackling the challenges of the high street. But place is determined by the geographies people live and work their lives in, not by arbitrary local government boundaries.
If local government is to better serve people – through high street improvements or housing provision – it needs to pull its resources together to match this geography.
Paul Swinney is director of policy and research at Centre for Cities