Size isn't everything

By Paul Wheeler | 13 October 2020
  • Paul Wheeler

What has got into the County Councils’ Network (CCN)? Previously known for having the best drinks reception at the Local Government Association conference, it is now rampaging around the debate on local government reorganisation like the boxer Rocky on speed. If the CCN was not so male-dominated it would perhaps recognise that size isn’t everything.

The case for council reform is less clear cut than its well-paid advisers suggested. After all, if council size was the only consideration then Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire would be vying for council of the year rather than a distant memory.

The problem for the shires is that whole county unitaries only make economic sense when they include cities as well as districts. For many, such as Devon and Derbyshire. those cities have long since bolted, leaving them more like doughnuts than economic powerhouses.

What is also evident from the COVID pandemic is that working from home has refocused the policy debate on towns. How will a large and remote unitary council choose between competing towns for regeneration bids? Sadly, this is displacement activity when the whole of the local government family should be focused on the appalling underfunding and political neglect of its activities. France and Germany are big state nations but have an infrastructure of small well-funded and politically influential localities.

If the advocates for big unitary paused for a moment they may want to address the democratic challenge of creating too few councils with too many councillors. Council chambers of 100-plus councillors are not effective in terms of good scrutiny or local representation. As for the sudden enthusiasm for elected county-wide mayors, be careful what you wish for. The experiment with police and crime commissioners has shown an unusual willingness of the public to elect mavericks and attention-seekers. Add in highly unpopular Government policies on planning and housebuilding and we may see our own mini Trumps in the shires.

With the resignation of the principal ministerial advocate for reorganisation, it may be that the big unitary push has peaked too soon. If so, it gives time for a more reasoned debate on how to get effective and well-funded local government across the English shires.

Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics


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