Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, who have published a new report Levelling Up Local Government in England
Last year, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to deliver a system of full English devolution and, as I understand it, the Government is now finalising these plans in a white paper due to be published this autumn.
Reform of England’s complicated local government structures is long overdue. There are currently 349 district, county, unitary, and combined authorities in England, as well as the Greater London Authority, many with overlapping responsibilities and competing interests.
Nottingham, for example, has nine separate councils, all with responsibilities for local planning and economic development in their part of the city. The seven district councils have responsibility for new housing, but then the two county councils are charged with delivering the transport infrastructure that new homes need. This bureaucratic arrangement makes joined-up long-term strategic decision making about Nottingham’s future much more difficult than it needs to be.
Additionally, many smaller district councils have neither the capacity nor the political will to deliver the large-scale housing and infrastructure projects needed to level up their areas, and the financial challenges of maintaining this patchwork system are increasing every year.
But the problems in English local government are about more than just function and finance. There is also a democratic deficit, with little public awareness or understanding of councils’ roles. Back in 2012, just eight per cent of people could name their local council leader, and I doubt this figure has improved much since then.
And a system in which a council leader is also a local ward councillor directly answerable to only to a tiny electorate makes it difficult for them to balance their voters’ priorities with their duty to the wider area. This means that hyper-local issues can crowd out the long-term planning and investment that an area needs.
The current system is the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal reform, but it’s having a damaging effect on the places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up, many of which have been hit harder economically by the Covid-19 pandemic than more affluent areas. We can’t keep tinkering around the edges – only wholescale reform will work now.
First, England’s existing 349 councils should be reduced down to 69 new, larger unitary and combined authorities that mirror as much as possible the economic areas in which people live and work. This would make joined-up strategic decision-making far easier.
When I make this argument, people often stress the importance of ensuring that historic or cultural boundaries are reflected in local government. I have two points to make on this: First, civic identity is not determined by local authority boundaries; it is possible to celebrate civic identity while having council boundaries that reflect the area over which people live and work. And second, as our proposals show, it is possible to create a new system that aligns political and economic geography whilst respecting existing historic county boundaries.
Second, the leader-and-cabinet model for local government should be scrapped and the 69 new authorities should be headed by a directly-elected political figure. In cities and large towns they should be called a mayor, in rural areas they could have a more appropriate name. But whatever they are called they should be given the mandate, powers, and resources to improve the lives of people living and in working in them.
Responsibility for key areas of the levelling up agenda such as housing delivery, infrastructure, management of public transport, and adult education provision should all be moved out of Whitehall and put in the hands of the new leaders and their authorities. The relevant government departments – Business, Transport, Education – could then be shrunk to reflect their smaller roles and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government could be transformed into an England Office similar to the Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Offices and, like in the devolved nations, be given responsibility for managing England’s devolution deals.
This simpler system, with a directly elected political leader, will begin to address the lack of public engagement in local politics. Though less than one in ten people nationally can name their council leader, in the Tees Valley, 40 per cent of people know the directly elected Conservative mayor, Ben Houchan, and they can name a policy achievement of his.
But it would be disingenuous to restructure local government and give it extra powers and responsibilities, without also providing it with the funding it needs to make good on these extra responsibilities. Devolving control over how local business rates, council tax, and charges are raised and spent, and giving greater discretion to councils on how they manage their budgets would give them the freedom and incentives they need to drive forward improvements in their areas – and would be a welcome relief after a decade of local government austerity.
Opponents of what I’m proposing will tell you that, despite its flaws, the current system works; and perhaps on a purely functional day-to-day level it does. But we should be asking ourselves what we want from local government in the future, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis. Should it just be emptying bins and collecting library fines? Or should it be applying its deep understanding of England’s cities, towns, and counties to deliver the levelling up agenda? I would argue it’s the latter, and I hope that ministers writing the devolution white paper, agree with me.