Cllr Holly Whitbread is an Epping Forest District councillor and the Cabinet Member, Housing & Community
There is much talk about devolution. Most ordinary people who are not absorbed in politics have little idea about what that means and how it would make their lives better. Politicians will say that devolution means bringing power closer to the electorate, with greater accountability at County Hall rather than Whitehall. Although true, this is not a statement which most people can understand or indeed believe the reality of. However, the truth is that, if done right, devolution could revolutionise local government and have a profound impact on the lives of people we represent – with real tangible impacts on day-to-day life.
As a councillor who has sat at every level of local government in my county (Parish, District and County), I would like to see a simpler system. Personally, I would advocate for a unitary system – combining a suitable number of current districts and boroughs. Also handing down many current county council level powers, with a combined authority led by a directly elected Mayor above it holding more powers handed down from Government such as Transportation and major infrastructure projects.
For me, there are three clear advantages to local government devolution:
The first two points can be explained simply, and their benefits are clear. In a county like mine in Essex you have hundreds and hundreds of elected representatives over the three tiers of local government, each with the ability to set tax for local people – it is questionable whether this provides real value for money. Further to this it must be considered that there are numerous Council Chambers and Local Government Office Buildings, as well as employees which could be shared and restructured. It is questionable whether the current system provides real value for money.
Streamlining the system will reduce the cost to the taxpayer of local democracy – and mean funding can be focused more on the priorities on the ground such as improving local highways, building social housing, and supporting the most vulnerable through social care. Further to this, the chain of political accountability is clearer, with elected representatives having more power to actually get things done.
The benefits of the third advantage, ‘Breaking down barriers’, is more complex and wide ranging – however as someone who has experienced the barriers and bureaucracy of a three-tiered system this could really be transformational. Getting things moving and working better. Ending the wasted time, with the back and forth between different authorities clarifying who holds responsibility for an issue – or indeed how councils might work together to address a combined challenge. At present too much is delayed through this separation of responsibilities and Local Government limits its ability to deliver through communication challenges and separation between different tiers of Local Government, and the departments within them.
One example in the area I know best, Social Housing and Health… The District Council (the housing authority) does not have a full picture of the number of their tenants who require a social care package or indeed who in the local community requires low level supported living. In my District our stock of ‘Independent Living’ is typically hard to let – there seems to be a clear opportunity to offer older people in larger council properties the opportunity to downsize to more appropriate accommodation, with additional support available and scope to better use technology potential easing pressures on social care.
Another example is highways maintenance and repairs where operatives are too centralised, covering 5,000 miles of roads, and would work more efficiently and effectively in a more compact and connected area.
The planning system highlights the flaws of local government in its current form. While I welcome the Government’s move away from top-down dictates, there is a need for a holistic approach to planning which considers where growth is appropriate and promotes effective master planning for the infrastructure communities need, enabling the delivery of development.
These are just a few of the areas crying out for functional partnership working which would be much easier to achieve in one authority. Many of these principles of course apply more broadly to the public sector, where a more open and collaborative approach would be beneficial to people using services such as healthcare. There is a wider debate to be had about the ‘public estate’ – making things more accessible both physically in central and accessible buildings, but also digitally.
The model of devolution I am describing is somewhat more radical than what is currently being proposed. By pursuing serious local government reform there is a great deal of opportunity to save the taxpayer huge amounts of money, further enfranchise local people, and give more powers to local representatives to make impactful change particularly around the levelling up agenda. Furthermore, true devolution is the way we can get things working better and done quicker.