“…the great disrupters digging No 10 into ever deeper holes are still at it with pickaxe and shovel. What a time to launch a colossal centralising reorganisation of local government, but that’s what next month’s white paper will do, under the misleading rubric of “devolution”. The intent is to force unitary councils everywhere, sweeping away the district councils beneath them…..”
John Hart says “I will not lead a charge” [towards unitary authorities] but will he dare to oppose? Good way to turn Devon back to Blue and get rid of all these pesky Independent and Libdem administrations! – Owl
Today it’s A-level maladministration, but every day some new failure shames this government beset with epochal crises. Abysmal handling of Covid-19 casts England as having the highest excess deaths in Europe, and the UK as suffering the deepest recession in the G7, while Brexit still looms.
That’s enough to busy this cabinet of incompetents. Yet the great disrupters digging No 10 into ever deeper holes are still at it with pickaxe and shovel. What a time to launch a colossal centralising reorganisation of local government, but that’s what next month’s white paper will do, under the misleading rubric of “devolution”. The intent is to force unitary councils everywhere, sweeping away the district councils beneath them: it looks neat – but it’s devoid of evidence that another great upheaval does anything but disrupt, cost money and distract council officials who are already overstretched coping with Covid rather better than Whitehall is.
District councils of all hues are putting up a fight. Why No 10 would choose this moment to rile battalions of Tory councillors, backed by their Tory MPs, is a mystery to observers. As the London School of Economics’ Prof Tony Travers reminds me, all local government reorganisations favour the party in power. This one sweeps away irritating Labour and Liberal Democrat urban district blobs holding their forts against a sea of blue county councils. Norwich, Leicester, Oxford and scores more towns and cities will put up a fight not to be swallowed into Torydom. Green- and Lib-Dem-controlled Lewes will never go quietly into the great East Sussex blue. The government is starting with North Yorkshire – but don’t expect yellow York or red Scarborough to kowtow. Nor will many Tory districts agree to be swallowed into the whales of their bigger counties.
Large sums are being squandered by districts and county councils hiring expensive consultancies to write opposing reports proving which is most efficient. Some districts’ plans bid to divide counties into fewer larger districts, though this may also gerrymander red to blue. England, says Travers, suffers “an endless churn” of reorganisations.
A prime motor for all this is No 10’s contempt for local government. Odd timing, now Whitehall is forced into a belated climb-down over test and trace, finally admitting only local council public health expertise can do it. Look how, when push comes to shove, Whitehall summons top-quality local government chief executives to run their programmes: first Leeds’ chief executive, now Oldham’s excellent leaders are recruited to repair Whitehall’s failed test and trace. Every observer notes how the calibre of local government leaders and chief executives has soared in recent years, unlike this decadent cabinet.
Whitehall departments and their ministers are the ones that should be threatened with special measures, whether it’s the Home Office over Windrush, the Department of Education over abysmal lockdown failures and now A-levels, or the Department for Work and Pensions over universal-credit fiascos. Traducing local government is just a distracting blame-shift.
The lesson is not learned: local government will be plunged into turmoil, every officer reapplying for their job under new brass plates on No 10’s whim. Subtly done, the white paper will force councils themselves to come up with their own plans to turn unitary, or receive no growth funds.
There is no optimum size, but the ministry has proclaimed a random 300-400,000 population minimum (with optional decorations of tiny parish councils with no power or money). Since the abolition of the Audit Commission, there’s no evidence on efficacy.
The more local, the more trusted the politician. Satisfaction with councillors improves with their nearness: distant county councillors elected by 9,000 voters are less trusted than nearby districts, with councillors elected by 2,000.
This is all a deliberate distraction from the one great problem: councils are crippled by cuts and an inability to raise finance, rendering them powerless. But expect no plan for financial renewal – no local sales or income tax, no Amazon tax on deliveries, no hotel and tourism tax nor any reform of council tax and business rates.
The social care crisis may summon more cash, but don’t expect that to fall to councils’ control. The “devolution” white paper will not devolve things that matter most, as Whitehall departments’ plans ignore the shape of localities: the new NHS integrated care systems don’t match existing councils, let alone planned new ones. Nor do local enterprise partnerships, local enterprise boards, nor transport authorities, nor Homes England’s social housing plans. None of the necessary push for retraining, upskilling and a “kickstart” youth employment programme will be devolved from the iron grip of the DWP to councils who know their labour markets. Lack of joined-up government in the silos at the top is reflected in each department’s hotchpotch local delivery.
Councils, in their sorry plight, need a monster reorganisation. “Take back control” turns out to be only central control. One local government think-tanker sighs and asks, “But do people care?” Let’s see how much noise the beleaguered red and yellow districts make and how angry Tory MPs will be about their own disappearing districts. Already there are signs of something amiss: the transcript of the speech by the minister for local government, Simon Clarke, in which he set out his devolution plans, was mysteriously taken down from the government’s website soon after it was put there. Just possibly, another rapid retreat by No 10 beckons.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist