Dan Peters 20 October 2020

Reorganisation battle lines drawn over think-tank report

The bitter war of words between counties and districts over reorganisation stepped up this week as battle lines were drawn around a new think-tank report.

Respublica’s latest report commissioned by the District Councils’ Network (DCN) and Unitary Councils’ Network claimed there was no evidence to ‘indicate the optimal footprint for local government or for the delivery of public services in England’.

The tone of Size Doesn’t Matter is nevertheless markedly different from right-of-centre Respublica’s comments in 2017, when a report supported by the County Councils’ Network (CCN) proposed reforms involving ‘complete reorganisation in the form of single-tier unitary councils’ and the think-tank argued in a press release that the 201 districts in England ‘should eventually be abolished’.

Mark Morrin, of Respublica, distanced himself from the 2017 press release but stood by the report, which he insisted covered different issues from the latest contribution.

He added: ‘You have to take account of what people are commissioning you for.

'We wouldn’t have written the same report for CCN.’

Respublica suggested that since 2017 there had been ‘little appetite’ for change, with ‘too few counties pursuing what has been deemed a divisive and distracting agenda’.

But, embarrassingly for DCN, which has argued reorganisation would distract from the coronavirus recovery, the report argued no tier of authority should be ‘so privileged that it is immune to change’.

Respublica also maintains there are ‘strong arguments’ for unitarisation for some counties like Warwickshire, Surrey, Leicestershire and North Yorkshire, which DCN members have dismissed as a ‘mega-council’ model.

A Respublica spokesman added: ‘We support less fragmented and more accountable governance.

'Our position has not changed.’

However, a County Councils' Network spokesman said in many places Respublica's latest report 'contradicts the evidence and arguments presented in their previous work'. 

He added: 'Respublica’s central premise on size, geographical footprints and economies of scale in this latest report are the polar opposite to many of the arguments they have previously made.'

Reorganisation was widely considered inevitable earlier this year but communities secretary Robert Jenrick has since stressed that unitary structures ‘are not and will not be compulsory or required by central government’.

Mr Jenrick is understood to have told areas where discussions on reorganisation were ‘less advanced’ that it was ‘not the right time’.

He said reorganisation for councils beyond the three chosen areas of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset was a topic for a ‘later, happier time’ and urged those local authorities not selected to instead focus on the impact of COVID.

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