16 January 2019

Away from Brexit, a real power shift is taking place in England


The British people are over-governed. On March 29th this year one layer is due to be cast aside. God willing, Brexit will have come to pass. However, that will still leave many of us groaning under the yoke not just of Westminster and our local town halls, but of another middle layer.

The Scots have Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament.  The Welsh have to cope with the impositions by the National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff Bay. Londoners have to pay a Council Tax surcharge to fund that temple of waste, City Hall – presided over by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

The “devolution” provided during the Blair era was promised to be about “people power”. The reality is that it has reduced the power held by the people and increased the power of the state. More politicians, more bureaucrats, more taxation, and more regulation.

Yet for many people in England there is now more positive news. There is a shift taking place towards unitary authorities. Having a district council and a county council is a muddling arrangement. Who do you blame if Council Tax goes up? Which council do you complain to about a pothole? Or your dustbin not being emptied? Or the library being closed?

The people of Dorset will have scarcely had time to recover from Brexit before waking up on Monday April 1st to discover that Dorset County Council no longer exists.  The district councils of Weymouth and Portland, West Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, and East Dorset will also be no more. Instead there will be a unitary Dorset Council. Those living in the county’s other three districts – Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole – will combine into a second unitary authority.

Let us take Lyme Regis as an example. At present they are governed by West Dorset District Council, Dorset County Council, the UK government, and the EU. Four layers. For the last weekend in March it will be down to three. Then they will awake, free at last, on Monday April 1st – with only Dorset Council and central Government in Westminster to deal with.

Next year the same process will take place in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. Buckinghamshire County Council and the district councils of South Bucks, Chiltern, Wycombe and Aylesbury Vale will all go, to be replaced by a single Buckinghamshire Council.

Northamptonshire County Council and its seven district councils within that county will all go. They will be replaced by two unitary authorities. North Northamptonshire will cover Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, and Wellingborough. West Northamptonshire will embody the rebirth of Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire.

Others are likely to move in the same direction. Cumbria could see its number of councillors fall by 200 if a proposal for unitary status is adopted.

And the issue of unitary status is being eagerly considered in Hampshire, Suffolk, Oxfordshire, and Lincolnshire. In other places, such as Cornwall, Wiltshire and Bedfordshire, it is already well established.

As well as making government simpler, analysis from accountants Ernst & Young for the County Council Network suggests that replacing the current mish-mash of councils with 27 unitary authorities could save £2.9 billion overall.

There is a risk in getting too carried away by these figures. The accountants are pretty hot when it comes to projecting economies of scale. Perhaps there could be further savings by merging county councils. Devon and Cornwall? Yorkshire and Lancashire? Such notions, of course, disregard historic local sensibilities.

An assumption that more remote government would be more efficient fails to take into account the politics. If a Council becomes too large then it is harder to throw the rascals out. It is perfectly viable to have relatively small unitary authorities, while still having the flexibility to provide shared services.

The upshot is that single tier local authorities offer opportunities for democratic clarity and for streamlining management. It will help but will not be a panacea. We have plenty of awful unitary authorities, as I would readily concede.

Really the reform should be part of a wider effort to invigorate our local democracy. Improving the calibre of councillors could be achieved by having smaller, single member, wards. Ironically, it would also be helped by scrapping councillor allowances. At present too many deadbeat councillors cling on for the money. Encouraging them to step aside would allow space for others to come forward with the right motivation.

Ultimately though, if we have clear accountable government then it is up to us voters to make the right choices.

In the same way, Brexit doesn’t mean, in itself, that we will have more immigration or less immigration.  Higher or lower standards of animal welfare. A shift towards socialism or the free market. It just means that we can make such decisions and then take the consequences. Those principles should apply when we vote in local elections too.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist