Chaos or design? The reorganisation state of play

What do the latest developments around devolution and reorganisation tell us about the current state of the government’s thinking? Asks Janet Sillett.

Our latest briefing (LGiU members only) is an update on what is happening so it seems sensible to start with an overview from the briefing.

2017 didn’t see much progress – except for the metro-mayor elections. The government appeared to have neither the interest, nor the policy bandwidth to fight messy LGR battles – hardly surprising with the all consuming brexit negotiations and legislation.

Yet we are in a somewhat different place in April 2018. The Greater Dorset and Buckinghamshire proposals that emerged some time back remain ‘on the table’. These were joined by the Northamptonshire County Council S114 notice which will lead to reorganisation there. New unitaries will be established in Dorset, subject to parliamentary approval and the proposal of a unitary for Buckinghamshire is out for consultation.

And there will be new districts of merged authorities – Waveney and Suffolk Coast Districts will form a new district of East Suffolk; St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath are to form a new district of West Suffolk; and merger of Taunton Deane and West Somerset councils will form a new district of Somerset West and Taunton.

Sheffield City Region will elect its combined authority mayor on 3 May. Negotiations are continuing for a pan-Yorkshire MCA in response to a £3.75bn devolution bid from 20 Yorkshire & Humber local authorities (including Barnsley and Doncaster of SCRMCA). And there is the North of Tyne MCA (covering Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland local authority areas) and devolution agreement, with elections due to take place for the MCA in May 2019.

Taken together this does represent fairly substantial reorganisation. But is it coherent?

The answer has to be no. Individual reforms may well be effective for their areas but they do not reflect any sense of strategic thinking from the government. It is still ‘messy’.

The government has, however, stated its criteria for going ahead with establishing unitary arrangements for Northamptonshire, including: greater value-for-money; savings; strong strategic and local leadership; creating sustainable structures; and also to command a good deal of local support, and having a population ‘substantially’ in excess of 300,000. Merging districts would need to also show the improvement of services as for unitaries, local support, and facilitation of joint working between the councils.

You could argue that the criteria leave the new Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, almost limitless room for personal judgement, the publication of any criteria does assist those proposing reorganisation to frame their propositions.

Yet can councils be sure the government will stick to its own criteria? For example, there may be divergence around the size of potential authorities. And are the criteria sensible anyway? The government has never made explicit why the proposed range is preferred apart from a general feeling that it is big enough to give economies of scale but not so big as to be remote. The rationale for the range, as opposed to, say, 200,000 – 400,000 or even 500,000 – 1,000,000, seems arbitrary.

The author of the briefing says that notwithstanding the merits of individual decisions for the local areas, the lack of strategic thinking will not help to meet the fundamental challenges facing local government and that the case for some sort of constitutional convention and comprehensive consideration of future roles, responsibilities, forms, functions and financing of England regional and local government and governance is now acute. Of course, with the government being overwhelmed by brexit it is likely any such convention will not happen any time soon.

I want to, anyway, go further back to basics. We have a deals based approach – it is not primarily about subsidiarity: the driver for devolution and reorganisation currently is not about this principle at all – and though the principle may be lurking in the minds of some in local government and maybe even some in central government – the process and the objectives are defined by pragmatism not idealism. So we have ‘deals’, bids, deadlines, conditionality. There is very little about democracy even, or challenging the establishment (of a central state) or the present concepts of sovereignty. Instead we have lists of functions, debates around structures and boundaries, proposals for what the mayor can decide or not. Of course this is all necessary if devolution is to function properly but is it enough? Hardly.

Having a deal based and ad hoc approach does tick some boxes though – it means there isn’t a central blueprint that will be imposed on everyone, however unsuitable (except the government is imposing criteria without evidence to back up why – especially that elected mayors are required to gain maximum powers). But what it also means is that there seems to be no coherent basis for devolution – no strategy or framework. Where is the underlying philosophy that ties together what should be the different strands of decentralisation – the economic, political and social changes that should occur as a result? Where are the challenges to the centre’s idea of sovereignty?

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s Head of Briefings.