Taking control of the devolution debate

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Whilst the unprecedented and often tragic circumstances of 2020 brought many challenges to local councils, an undoubted positive has been the increased visibility of many councils in their front line response to the pandemic impact. Whether supporting the vulnerable, distributing grant funding, or simply maintaining services under extremely difficult circumstances, community and public perception of local authorities has been extremely positive. Yet all councils face continuing challenge this year, not least their response to the government’s long-delayed White Paper on devolution. Whilst there has been a subtle shift in the mood music in Whitehall, corresponding with the change in minister, devolution remains a central part of the government agenda.

The White Paper has long been positioned to gift greater powers to the regions and promote their ‘levelling up’ in response to regional economic and social inequalities. As late as July last year, former minister Simon Clarke speculated that the White Paper would lead to far more directly elected mayors and more unitary authorities. 

In response, many council leaders and chief executives have pre-empted the White Paper. In several English counties, there has been a rush to get ahead of the debate by commissioning reports and passing motions to call for particular unitary structures. In most cases, this debate has taken the form of existing county councils pushing for whole-county unitary status, often setting them against district and borough councils who fear loss of local autonomy – in some cases going so far as to accuse their county councils of a power grab. 

Yet the extent to which district councils have been able to catch the attention of central government (and ultimately have alternative potential bids taken seriously) has varied considerably. The districts of Somerset have had notable success in pressing their case. Using the FoLGIS (Future of Local Government in Somerset) banner, they established early and effective collaborative working relationships between the districts and were able to craft a fully developed single business case which had broad support. 

Elsewhere, district councils have had more mixed results in pressing their case. Districts within a county area, unable to agree an alternative to a county-wide unitary, have struggled to have their views acknowledged in Whitehall, and sometimes even within their own communities. To be heard, district councils will need to take control of the debate and speak with a unified voice across the county. 

The county councils have positioned the debate in purely economic terms, citing significant cost savings achieved by moving to a whole-county unitary model, alongside a pragmatic assertion that a larger local authority can apply itself more easily to the challenges of post-COVID economic recovery, and will be better able to attract external funding to support that recovery. There is merit to this argument and, when unchallenged, it carries considerable public support, as we saw in Buckinghamshire. 

At district and borough level, the argument is more nuanced. Neighbouring tier two authorities have long shared services or embarked on joint projects, so a move towards unitarisation would be, for many, the next logical step. However, the significant disparities of economic and social needs that exist across the UK, are frequently reflected within individual counties. Tier two authorities have often, therefore, argued that the needs of individual communities and their sense of place ought to be better considered – in many cases as a more important factor than the purely financial. Many district councils have reframed this debate as one of place versus cost, and consequently argued for the division of existing county council areas into multiple unitary authorities. But such a refashioning, to join up with other councils and form potential unitary bids of their own, has led many councils to question whether they have the right leadership skills to take on the counties at their own game. 

In the vast majority of two-tier counties, strong, legitimate and popular arguments can be made on either side of this debate. But for budgetary and population reasons (not to mention expediency for civil servants at The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Govenrment) the districts should recognise that, in isolation, they will struggle to compete for attention. Those district councils most volubly arguing against single county unitaries work effectively together to speak with a single voice, presenting properly costed counter-arguments. Given the preference of government for unitary councils, failure by district councils to argue a solid rationale will inevitably lead to the very thing the majority are fighting to avoid: defaulting to a county-wide unitary council imposed by Whitehall. The councils which succeed will be the ones who use the current context of post-pandemic recovery to radically reform the way in which they work and deliver services, which will inevitably mean different skills and behaviours are required in district council chief executives and their leadership teams. 

Seb Lowe, Partner Local Government

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