9 October 2020: The complex structure of regional and local authorities in England is just begging for reform, but will the rumoured plan to abolish county and district councils fix it for good?
Local government in England, as illustrated by the #icaewchartoftheweek, is pretty complex with eight different types of regional or principal authority and a patchwork quilt of different tiers of government across the country.
This complex system comprises areas without a regional tier of government involving unitary authorities or county & district councils, and those with combined authorities atop unitary authorities or metropolitan boroughs (and one county and its districts) and the Greater London Authority atop 32 London boroughs and the City of London. (This excludes the 9,000 or so town, village and other forms of parish councils in England, mostly outside the major urban areas).
This complexity makes it very difficult for the Government to interact with local authorities in the absence of a consistent model of local government or a country-wide regional tier of government to act as intermediary. This contrasts (for example) with the federal system in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel regularly speaks to the leaders of the 16 German states, who in turn deal with the local authorities in their areas. Similarly (although not formally federal), France has 13 mainland and 5 overseas regional administrations that President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jean Castex can talk to and who will deal with their constituent provinces.
The UK Government can and does communicate with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, West Yorkshire Chair Susan Hinchcliffe, Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotherham, Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis, North East Chair Iain Malcolm, West of England Mayor Tim Bowles, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Mayor James Palmer, North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, each of whom can represent their constituent local authorities. But, they only represent 44% of the English population, with a further 24 county council leaders and 46 unitary authority leaders to speak to cover the remaining 56%. That is a pretty big Zoom call, assuming borough and unitary leaders within the regional authority areas don’t also insist on joining in.
The delayed announcement of a plan to abolish the 25 county and 188 district councils and replace them with between 25 and 40 new unitary authorities (perhaps with some mergers with existing unitary authorities) will go some way to rationalising the existing system by going to a single tier of principal local authorities. This would bring local public services together under one roof and save money, albeit there are some concerns about whether some of the new authorities would be too remote from the local citizenry.
However, this is still likely to leave English local government reform unfinished with over half the country without a regional tier of government. Will the Government want to continue with its existing organic approach of combined authority formation or go for a more comprehensive programme to establish regional authorities across the whole country, similar to the French reforms of the 1980s?