We can’t wait any longer for major reform of local government

By Simon Jeffrey | 21 September 2020

The Government won a large majority last December with a pledge to ‘level up’ the country and bring prosperity to many of the towns and cities supposedly forgotten by Westminster politicians.

Now, with unemployment rising across the country and many businesses facing an uncertain future, honouring this pledge is more important than ever. But the changes that are needed cannot be driven from Whitehall; with a population of almost 56 million people, England is simply too large for a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Instead, these changes should be driven locally, by the people who understand the challenges an area faces and close enough to the public to know what they need to do to solve the problems. In short, they should be driven by local government.

But English local government in its present form is not fit for purpose. With a complex patchwork of district, county and unitary councils, combined authorities covering some of the largest cities and the Greater London Authority in the capital, responsibilities for areas such as housing and transport and economic development often overlap.

In Nottingham for example, a city with about 678,000 people, there are nine separate authorities of three different types covering the city. Seven of these are in charge of providing new residential and commercial developments, but then responsibility for the infrastructure that supports the developments is the domain of the final two authorities.

This complicated and bureaucratic system, the result of decades of piecemeal reform, is common across England but makes it hard to develop coherent economic strategies. As a result, plans for building new housing, commercial development and infrastructure to support economic growth are hampered by competing interests and overlapping mandates.

The system also grants an oversized role to small district councils who, being blunt, on one level are not capable of managing largescale infrastructure projects, and on another often actively resist them to placate local NIMBY campaigns.

These arguments alone are convincing grounds for major reform, and that is before we even consider the financial challenge of maintaining 349 overlapping local and combined authorities after 10  years of cuts, and the lack of public understanding for this complex system.

We are now at a point where tinkering around the edges of the system will not work; only wholescale changes to local government’s structure and funding will allow it to play a meaningful role in the levelling up agenda.

The political map of England should be redrawn, with the 349 authorities being replaced by 69 unitary or combined authorities whose political boundaries match the economic geography in which people live and work. These would be led by one directly elected political leader who could be called a mayor, or they could have an alternative title.

Whatever they are called they should be vested with the oversight and powers to grow the whole economy – everything from adult education provision to control over bus franchising. Then on top of this, existing and future metro-mayors should be granted the same powers as the Mayor of London to reflect the important role that their cities play in the driving the national economy.

But to offer reformed local government powers without the appropriate resources would leave untouched a major failing in the current system. Reformed local government needs a reformed relationship with central Government – new unitaries should have greater control over council tax, business rates, charges and less interference in how they manage their budgets to allow them to invest in projects they really need.

These proposals will have their detractors, and it will not be possible to please everyone when setting the shape of any new local government boundaries, but we cannot wait any longer. The current patchwork needs to change if we are to have any hope of levelling up places across the country.

Simon Jeffrey is Centre for Cities’ Policy Officer and author of their new report Levelling Up Local Government in England

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