Thinking about unitarisation and reorganisation

Posted on 26/08/2020 by Ed Hammond.

Since the late spring there have been increased rumblings that the expected Devolution White Paper will bring with it plans for structural reorganisation in English local government. 

Over the past thirty years or so there have been sporadic moves to reorganise local government in different parts of the country – mainly through creating unitary councils in places which were previously two-tier (with a county and districts providing services within the same area). This is based on the assumption that unitary government is more efficient and more streamlined, and more understandable for local people. 

(At this point our friends at the National Association for Local Councils (NALC) would remind us that in mainly two tier areas there is in fact an additional tier of government – parish councils, of which there are many thousands nationwide, principally in more rural areas. Unitarisation would not, of course, affect these bodies – what we are talking about is the structures of principal councils.)

The most substantial steps to unitarise happened in 1986 (with the abolition of metropolitan counties), 1996 (with unitarisation in Wales and a number of parts of England) and 2009 (with unitarisation in places like Cornwall, Cheshire and the north east). More recently a few more areas have been added to the list – Dorset, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire. This has left England with a patchwork of different models in different areas. For people with large maps of English local government boundaries on their walls at home – I make no admissions here – you can understand the temptation to wish to “tidy up” this geography. 

Even before the starting pistol has been fired, a number of areas have begun exploring their options on unitarisation. Given that this is likely to be a dominant theme for the sector for the remainder of this year and much of the next, we thought we ought to set out our position on these changes. 

Firstly, we are neutral on the structural models that exist for unitarisation in two-tier areas. Different people in different parts of the sector are arguing for county-wide unitaries, for two or three-unitary models for county areas or for a model which looks more like the “business as usual” approach. Some are calling for further “rationalisation” of existing unitary areas. In our view and drawing on councils’ experience in 1996, 2009 and other unitarisations, there is no killer argument for or against any particular model (this is despite the presence of plenty of consultants’ reports claiming the opposite). More important is the operating model of the new council – the way it works, practically – members and officers’ roles and the relationship the council has with the public. The more time we spend on circular arguments about structures, in isolation, the less time we have to spend on these more valuable, practical issues.   

Secondly, it is difficult to see how reorganisation will itself resolve any of the sector’s underlying problems. The same number of people will still exist, living and working in the areas that we serve. Those people will have the same complex need. Much has been spoken about the potential “agglomeration benefits” of larger councils and it’s clear from the 2009 experience that such changes have led to cost savings. Larger areas can unlock the opportunity for more strategic thinking across a place – and for better partnership working across broader geographical areas, particularly where new combined authorities might be established. But the financial challenges for the sector are arguably more profound than this, and will remain even when these benefits are accounted for. New councils will still have to work hard to assure their financial sustainability. 

Thirdly, there are risks in reorganisation of a reduction in representation by elected members. The creation of new councils in two-tier areas in particular will inevitably involve a reduction in the number of councillors. In some recent unitarisations, numbers have reduced by around half – or more. There are similar reductions in staffing, mainly at the top of the new organisations. Some (like Professor Colin Copus) have argued strenuously against unitarisation for this reason. Understanding the roles that councillors will perform in a new council – where the number of councillors overall is fewer, but the number of councillors in each council is itself greater – will be an important priority. 

Fourthly, everything is local. Councils may determine that they have alighted on a new structural model which can unlock significant potential and activity which might have been impossible before. Councils developing proposals might seek to put forward plans for a different sort of council – a council unencumbered by bureaucratic tradition which might be able to work in dramatically innovative ways, ways which enable them to be more local. In these areas, unitarisation could hold huge promise. For all the potential risks these benefits will exist – and key to finding them is understanding how governance in these new councils can be designed to take advantage of this opportunity and support more community empowerment and involvement. 

This fourth point sums up our approach. Determinations about future structure must be built on local circumstances, and a fundamental understanding of what local people need. Councillors may be tempted to defer to consultants to give them empirical answers – but empirical answers are unlikely to exist. What works will be firmly anchored in local politics and local place. 

Councillors are well placed to understand these issues and needs and will need to play a central role in this discussion. But these conversations will, we know, be contentious. The risk is that an inability to reach local agreement will place the decision in the hands of the Secretary of State. Hitherto, moves to unitarise have generally required the agreement of all councils in the area but this is no longer necessarily the case. Local areas will need to think of ways to overcome disagreement and find consensus if the decision isn’t to be taken away from them. 


About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.