With mixed success, most governments since the 1960s have at one time considered how to structure and re-structure English local government in a bid to put more decision-making power in the hands of regional leaders. At the 2019 election – and in the subsequent Queen’s Speech – the Government raised the notion of devolution again with the promise of a new, more radical white paper on English Devolution that would outline a proposed agenda for the unitarisation of local government.
While commentators have long argued for a new approach to devolution across England to break up the centralisation of government, major reforms are always fraught with legal, political, and economic challenges which will require a strength of vision, and a firm legal grounding to overcome.
Bound with gilded chains
Devolution reforms always come with three promises: more power, more money, less bureaucracy. Early indications were that the Government’s proposals were much more radical than anticipated and would set out a range of incentives designed to quickly increase the number of elected mayors and reduce the number of councils. For the Government, this would mean reduced costs associated with the ending of the two-tier council structure while local authorities get more power and – theoretically – more funding and resilience.
At its most fundamental, devolution has significant merit; it empowers local authorities and regions while simplifying bureaucracy and council structure. But it has challenges, too, regarding the strength of democratic mandate and accountability. Size, for example, may be a sticking point for many communities. Some proposed combined authorities could represent more than 700,000 residents, which poses the question of whether an authority of that size could really deliver change in a meaningful – and democratic – way. Local politics could start to feel a lot less local.
Some radical thinkers – such as the Centre for Cities – want to see wholesale economic change which would move combined authorities to self-funded status, ultimately removing central government from almost any sort of financial oversight. But reports of radical plans for reform have waned. Not only has the proposed white paper been pushed back into 2021, but rising tension between regional and national leadership over the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic suggests a significant roll back of early thinking in favour of the retention of some centralised control.
Major change shouldn’t be ruled out, however, and must include consultation. The Government’s delayed white paper will need to set out a clear roadmap for engagement with stakeholders. While legislation and policy will need to be drawn up and approved by parliament – with statutory instruments needed for each merger – discussions with local authorities and communities are also vitally important.
Communities – acutely aware of the importance of local services and key workers throughout the Coronavirus pandemic – will be nervous of significant change. Councillors too, many of whom may well lose out under a combined authority reorganisation, will need careful engagement.
The potential for stand off
Where engagement falters, or fails, the potential for lengthy legal stand off is significant. For example it's no secret that Oxfordshire County Council struggled with its plan to merge with the five district councils in its region. Despite putting together cogent plans on the benefits of doing so more than four years ago, the matter split the authorities into two camps and has since been overshadowed by the focus on the Oxfordshire Growth Board and its part to play in the Oxford to Cambridge Arc. Had the merger progressed to an attempt to create a unitary authority, the situation could have played out in a similar fashion to the unitarisation of nine Dorset councils into two single authorities.
While a 2016 consultation found that residents across the wider area were in favour of the proposals for a merger, residents in Christchurch Borough Council rejected the motion in a local referendum and forced the council to submit an alternative plan to the government.
This was rejected by the secretary of state who authorised the original plans but, again, local sentiment led to Christchurch launching a judicial review of the process. While ultimately unsuccessful, the debate and legal challenge around the merger meant it took more than three years to complete. This underlines the need for a firmly established legal framework – whatever reforms the Government proposes.
It’s unlikely the government has completely lost its appetite for local government reform, but devolution is a long and complex process that remains unfinished business for many governments. Unless there is a significant carrot it is likely authorities such as those in Oxfordshire will not waste energy on pursuing unitary status when there are bigger growth projects out there to focus the mind. If the government is serious about change, the white paper needs to justify that any reforms will work for communities, will improve services, will generate funding and will strengthen local democracy – all while being backed by a stable and reliable legal framework.
Penny Rinta-Suksi is a partner at Blake Morgan LLP and a non-executive director at Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP)