Local government reorganisation. Three words that should send shudders up the spine of any self-respecting minister appointed to serve at DCLG. The discussions are inevitably as protracted as they are heated and the end result often passes a disengaged electorate providing council tax remains low and the bins get collected. On the face of it then, an ostensibly unattractive pastime for politicians in Westminster to be partaking in. Yet history is littered with attempts, successful or otherwise, to change the structure of how politics operates below Westminster - usually in the name of efficiency, proficiency or austerity.
One such attempt has been ongoing for some time. The model they’ve stumbled upon was, in many respects, entirely predictable. Devolution is underpinned by subsidiarity; the cherished principle for some in Government that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level (see Brexit for details…). Austerity, the dominant component of modern centre-right economic thinking, requires costs to be cut; something many believe combined authorities can and will achieve. Mayors meanwhile are in line with the “buck stops here” accountability we’ve seen the Government embrace through the establishment of Police & Crime Commissioners.
The mood going into Conservative Party Conference amongst councillors attending seemed cautiously optimistic. Most bought into the concept of further powers through devolution, providing everything was properly funded and resourced. Most seemed to understand why combined authorities were favoured, although talk of unitary authorities being the true end game was never far away. It was the mayoral component that seemed to be particularly exercising those representing more rural and county authorities. Nevertheless, hope remained that deals could be done on bespoke terms that reflected the individual nature of each given area.
It therefore came as a great surprise to many when word went around the conference venue that senior governmental figures were briefing out a position of “no mayor, no deal”. The despatching of parliamentary aides to stress to disgruntled attendees that devolution and cash had to go hand-in-hand with enhanced accountability didn't get the warmest reception. Quite a few prominent councillors subsequently used fringe event speaking slots to indicate that the requirement to have a mayor would not wash in their local communities.
Post-Conference, the Government has continued to reiterate it’s “no mayor, no deal” line. The Secretary of State has held numerous private meetings with his backbench colleagues where the importance of accountability has been stressed. Those in rural areas find themselves increasingly squashed between defending the Government line and an increasingly hostile ear bashing from local representatives. Lincolnshire County Council, by 43 votes to 17, has upped the ante by rejecting a combined authority with a directly elected mayor. The promise of an extra £15m a year seemingly mattering little. I confidently predict that, unless we see some changes in Westminster thinking, they’ll not be the last to try and scupper a deal not yet done…
Which brings us back to the start… local government reorganisation. Three words that should send shudders up the spine of any self-respecting minister appointed to serve at DCLG…. and yet here we are again. Questions will be asked, debates in Parliament will be had, the press will provide a boxing ring for disputes to be settled in… and the public will be broadly content if council tax remains low and the bins get collected.
One Lincolnshire Cabinet Member said after the vote that he was “no great lover of government of any sort”. As we once again board the merry-go-round of local government reorganisation, his sentiments are perhaps something we might all find ourselves warming to!
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