Chris Game (University of Birmingham, Institute of Local Government Studies): Every cloud, as the saying goes. It seems that one of the collateral victims of the global economic crisis may be the current round of English local government reorganisation.
Speaking at a recent Belfast conference of local authority chief executives, Communities and Local Government Secretary, Hazel Blears, claimed her department had gone ‘back to the drawing board’ on any issues that might help local government ‘in the tough times ahead’. These included a possible reconsideration of the Government’s latest bout of restructuring, taking place under the controversial auspices of last year’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act (see Michael Chisholm and Steve Leach, Botched Business: The damaging process of reorganising local government, 2006-2008 (Douglas Maclean Publishing); and Chisholm’s ‘Fears for tiers’ in Public Finance, 23 May 2008).
Those of us in the local government world learned long ago to be thankful for small mercies. So, if it takes an economic crisis to prompt at least a delay in what to most outside observers looks like the final destruction of much of English local government, we’ll welcome it as the proverbial silver cloud. It’s sad, though, that there wasn’t even a hint from the Minister that considerations of that quaint concept of local democracy played any part in her thinking.
As is increasingly recognised, UK local government already operates on a scale that would prompt most democratic countries to put inverted commas around ‘local’. Our 468 principal local authorities for the 60 million of us equate to an average population of 128,000, or one councillor for every 2,730 residents.
The 60 million French get over half a million councillors in their 36,700 communes alone – one for every 120 of them. The Swedes get one per 200, the Germans one per 420, the Spanish and Italians one per 600, and again these ratios are for only the most local tier in 2- or 3-tier local government systems.
Take away England’s current 34 shire counties – as the Government has already started to – and England’s most local tier of 354 district, borough and unitary councils has an average population of over 140,000. By comparison, the commune/municipality average in France is 1,600, in Spain 5,000, in Germany and Italy about 7,000, and even in recently restructured Denmark about 50,000.
Yet curiously, these continentals seem able to understand and cope with their thousands of multi-tiered councils without succumbing to regular fits of the vapours – possibly, of course, because their names and boundaries aren’t being changed every decade or so.
We, it seems, are different. The only way Ministers feel we will be able to grasp the subtleties of sub-central government is if we have so few and such enormous units that we rarely need to travel outside the only one whose name we have to remember.
Take, for example, Northumberland – in area the seventh largest county in England. Last May the county’s voters elected a new 67-member unitary council, which from next April will be – with no disrespect intended to the parish councils in four of the present six districts – effectively the county’s ‘local’ government.
The County Council and the six district councils will disappear, and with them their 306 councillors, leaving just the doughty 67 to represent a population of over 300,000 across an authority stretching over 100 miles north to south.
By comparison, the half-million Durhamers may feel themselves almost democratically pampered. They too will have a single county-wide unitary council from next April, but their 375 councillors are being cut by only two-thirds – to 126, or a generous ratio of one councillor for every 4,000 residents.
There will be many older voters able to recall when things were very different. Until local government reorganisation in the early 1970s, the present county of Northumberland had 22 councils and 647 councillors, and Durham (excluding the now unitary Darlington) 20 councils and 627 councillors – all, incidentally, completely unpaid. In 35 years, therefore, successive governments could be said to have foisted on these counties local democratic deficits of 90% and 80% respectively.
To date, Northumberland and Durham are the only two county-wide unitaries actually to have been elected, although three others – Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire – are also due to both hold elections and come into operation in 2009. The other unitaries already elected have involved splitting the counties of Bedfordshire and Cheshire into two, with the result that the new authorities, though in some cases artificial and incongruous, are at least not quite as gross.
But there are more county unitaries in the pipeline – like Norfolk. Until the 1970s, the county’s then smaller population was served by 31 councils and 1,174 councillors. Today they have the County and 7 district councils, with 421 councillors. The Boundary Committee’s current view, however, is that in this case a single whole-county unitary may not be quite big enough. So, attempting a new record democratic deficit of 93%, it proposes adding in Lowestoft from Suffolk for good measure.
Logical as it may look on a map, it’s unsurprisingly not a universally popular idea. As one Lowestoft pub landlady put it: “We’re not part of bleedin’ Norfolk. I was born in a fishing village just near here. I’m Suffolk.” It’s not a very comforting thought, but it may be that a global recession is the best bet available both for her future in Suffolk and for that of English local democracy.