This week, a Zoom meeting between the leaders of Lancashire’s 15 local authorities ended bitterly, after the leader of Lancashire County Council accused his counterparts of dithering over a devolution deal.
“You could all stand outside in the pouring rain”, Geoff Driver told them, “and you would take all day to decide whether you were getting equally wet or if some of you had more shelter than others.”
Several other attendees – from South Ribble, Chorley, Ribble Valley and West Lancashire councils – logged off in disgust. They had objected to their logos being included in a document about the county’s post-Covid-19 recovery plans, the contents of which they were not consulted on.
This scuffle was the latest episode in a four-year saga of tortuous discussions over devolution for Lancashire. Now, as Whitehall plans the biggest shake-up of English local government in decades, tense Zoom calls are likely to proliferate in councils across the country.
Simon Clarke, the Minister for Regional Growth, has announced that district and county councils will be merged, creating unitary, single-tiered authorities under elected mayors. The proposals will be published in an upcoming white paper in September, but it is thought that acceptance of the mergers, although voluntary, will become a necessary step in unlocking extra money and powers from Whitehall.
The Minister told a Northern Powerhouse Summit last week that “a move to unitarisation will streamline the delivery of good governance, place local government on a more sustainable financial and population footing and inject more accountability into our democratic structures and save money that can be reinvested in those communities”, the Financial Times reports. “The gap between those areas that have mayoralties enjoying the resulting funding and freedoms… and those areas that do not… will only widen,” Clarke warned.
Jessica Studdert, deputy director of the New Local Government Network think tank, is sceptical of the government’s approach, particularly its leveraging of finance to force through the changes at a time when local government is in the middle of a deep financial crisis.
“The government is saying, ‘We’ll deny you funding for ten years, and as a consequence increase your vulnerability to big economic shocks and a pandemic. When you can’t balance the budget in year, then we’re going to make demands and say that we have these new peanuts but only if you reform’.”
Geographically overlapping, two-tier authorities have been in place since the Local Government Act of 1972, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives abandoned the outgoing Labour government’s plans to create a system of single-tier authorities across the country. Since then, the two-tier system has been gradually eroded by a string of reforms. Its patchwork nature has attracted criticism from central government for being convoluted and prone to indecision. Metropolitan county councils such as Merseyside and Greater London, Labour strongholds, were abolished by Margaret Thatcher as she took on combative, supposedly profligate, left-wing councils in the 1980s, stripping them of many of their powers.
Opposition to Clarke’s new “unitarisation” plans has already emerged from local Conservatives in Lancashire, who warn this latest wave of mayoral devolution could lead to a re-emergence of town hall socialism and local demagogues.
“Imagine a raft of councils with Nigel Farage-type populist leaders,” wrote Ged Mirfin, a Ribble Valley councillor, on ConservativeHome. New authorities could emerge “in the Derek Hatton or Ken Livingstone mode”, evoking the era of strong local socialists willing to take on Westminster, he wrote, also predicting a “central government reaction when such authorities use their independence to implement devolved powers it really doesn’t like”.
The creation of Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Sheffield City Region, North of Tyne and West Midlands combined authorities has been the centrepiece of the Conservatives’ devolution policy since 2010. Ironically, these are two-tiered systems themselves, points out Studdert.
“It [the government] says two-tier systems are a mess, but it doesn’t apply the same logic to combined authorities, which are essentially two tiers. They don’t seem to be worried about a two-tier governance structure when it suits them,” she says. “One of the fundamental problems with this reform is that it seems to be driven more by cost efficiencies than the principle of democratic reform.”
The model of city regionalism with executive mayors and merged local authorities based around a regional economic hub and surrounding metropolitan area – a single, coherent “functional economic area” – now looks like it will be extended across more rural areas and smaller towns as district and county councils merge. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has indicated that, under the proposed reforms, new council areas should have a population of between 300,000 and 700,000.
The establishment of the combined authorities since 2010 has not always been a smooth process. Getting local councils to accept the government’s one-size-fits-all model, especially when it comes to cooperation between regional rivals, is a challenge. The Centre for Cities has described the arrangement for North of Tyne, for instance, as “far from ideal”.
“The point of devolution is to pass powers over the economy down to the geography that people live and work their lives over,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Centre for Cities. “But the current geography (through no fault of the North of Tyne authorities) does not match this geography.” Over a third (35 per cent) of Gateshead residents, for example, cross the Tyne for work every day – their place of work is under the jurisdiction of the combined authority, but their homes are not.
The councils themselves do not always see eye to eye. In September 2016, North of Tyne, originally meant to be a seven-authority body, went down to three when Sunderland, Gateshead, South Tyneside and County Durham broke off talks over the government’s failure to guarantee lost EU funding for the region post-Brexit.
Similarly, Sheffield City Region combined authority does not include Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire County Councils, nor Barnsley and Doncaster, whose residents rejected the Sheffield City Region model in a referendum, despite those areas encompassing South Yorkshire’s “functional economic area”. The disgruntled councils accused Sheffield Council of a land grab. David Cameron, prime minister at the beginning of Sheffield’s devolution journey, was caught joking about Yorkshire’s internecine rivalries. “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else,” he said. “We didn’t realise they hated each other so much.”
Already, in response to the government’s white paper announcement, Burnley Council has passed a motion rejecting “any form of local government reorganisation, or simplification, as a condition for the establishment of a combined authority.”
A petition of Ribble Valley residents, rejecting a merger with Blackburn and Darwen Council, describes the plans as “ridiculous”. Over 8,000 signatories have said they want to “remain separate and independent”. Blackburn has been told to “back off!”
“If you were just starting with a blank sheet of paper, you probably wouldn’t design local government how it’s structured today,” says Studdert. “But the reason it looks how it does now is a combination of history and culture of place. Counties and districts mean something to the people who live there; they are part of the local identity.”
The UK is often cited as the most centralised country in the OECD. The Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, often criticised for concentrating power even more firmly in the hands of Downing Street, once wrote that “the crucible of democratic society – local civil society – is being destroyed by centralisation in Westminster and the EU”.
This major restructuring is the latest in a long line of attempts to redistribute decision-making more evenly across the country. The government may use the financial strife of local authorities, exacerbated by the pandemic, to implement its vision by any means necessary. Yet if the past is any indication, Westminster may be in for more than it bargained for.