Owl says: But alas not before EDDC has spent £10 million plus of our money on a new HQ which may be redundant before they move into it!
“Tory councillors popping celebratory corks after last week’s haul of seats should bear in mind the old adage: be careful what you wish for. Now they occupy council leadership positions from Maidstone to Morpeth, it is they alone who must now carry the can for sorting out local government’s two Rs, revenue and reorganisation. The latter is going to haunt county halls for the next political cycle.
The blue tide isn’t going to wash away any of local government’s fundamental problem of a lack of money. Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, has said he hopes “emboldened county leadership” could campaign for sustainable funding for social care and children’s services; he’s an optimist.
Residents may be willing to pay more for looking after older people. But how? Council tax won’t provide enough, so it will be down to central grants. Whoever is communities secretary after June 9 (and Theresa May looks unlikely to keep Sajid Javid) must now devise a distribution and needs formula for England that will protect Tories in the north as well as those in the heartlands of the south.
Short of May tearing up the spending plans set out by Philip Hammond barely a couple of months ago, financial pressure isn’t going to ease. So, come June 9 we’re back to the Christchurch question. A month ago, councillors in the solidly Tory Dorset district decided to defer a referendum on an outline plan to reorganise local government in that county, getting rid of two tiers and replacing the county council, districts and existing Poole and Bournemouth unitary councils with two new, big unitaries. Without reorganisation, the story goes, austerity has made local government financially unviable.
Reorganisation details are different in the various, but the same kinds of argument have been playing in Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Kent, Bucks, Essex, Hampshire and the other shires. If you notice something similar about those names, gold star: they are all Tory. What’s in prospect is largely an intra-Tory party argument which, in Kent, for example, is already pitting Tory MPs against councillors, as well as setting up massive squabbles between councillors themselves.
We’ve been here before, several times. Those with long memories will recall the long hours and bitter debate within the John Major government in the 1990s over reorganisation. The fruits of that included the demise of Avon county council in 1996, which the West of England combined authority is a bodged attempt at recreating.
Reorganisation is back because consultants’ reports say it should in principle be cheaper to run services over bigger areas with a single tier council and county executives usually agree. But those reports perennially underestimate transitional costs and rarely factor in the hard-to-quantify but vital element of the identification of residents and staff with particular places and local history.
Besides, most reorganisations turn into messy compromises. Take Christchurch. A “rational” reorganisation based on economic geography would align it with Southampton and the Solent, with the New Forest a sort of park in between urban areas. But few Tories are willing to abandon entirely the historic boundaries of Dorset even if the county council goes, just as few Tories want to see the (non-Tory) urban areas of Oxford and Cambridge being allowed to swallow the districts around them.
And all that is just local government. Summing up the costly and largely ineffective debates of the 1990s, Michael Chisholm, chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission, complained of the folly of reorganising without simultaneously considering council powers and finance – which these days has to include the interrelationship of councils and the NHS as well as the fraught consequences of councils’ keeping the proceeds of business rates and the end of central grants.
There’s trouble ahead but at least reorganisation would weaken the political hegemony the Tories have now established across a wide swath of English local government.”