Local government reforms

By Michael HardwareDirector of Planning and Property

The prospect of radical local government reforms emerged in the late summer last year resulting in a frenzy of activity around the country. A manifesto pledge in the 2019 General Election, this will involve dissolving counties, districts and boroughs into unitary and combined authorities with elected mayors.

The feedback from councillors was robust suggesting such reforms at the same time as planning reforms was a step too far. It resulted in MHCLG reeling back on its plans ‘trialling’ reforms in Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire. It invited the councils there to come forward with proposals and is currently consulting on these. Elections for the new authority will take place next year, shadowing the existing councils for a year before they are abolished in 2023.

But local government reforms for the rest of us have not gone away, they are very much on the Government’s agenda. It is expected to publish its Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper later this year which will detail its final proposals with the rollout before the next General Election in 2024.

Some have continued to position themselves ahead of the white paper. Labour-run Basildon Council is keen to join up with Conservative Thurrock, already a unitary authority.  Both are considering signing a memorandum of understanding to that ends and have been encouraging others in south Essex to join including Brentwood, Southend and Castle Point. Brentwood, however, is not keen and has already robustly said it has no intention of voluntarily joining the larger council.

MHCLG was clear that councils needed to come forward with supported proposals otherwise it would decide on local reforms. It gave some informal parameters such as it was looking for groupings with populations of between 450,000 and 900,000, as they were thought to be the most economic size, although even these figures changed. The consensus was that most counties would be split into two or three unitary authorities – MHCLG made it clear that county-wide unitaries would not be allowed.

One thing is clear, these reforms will herald the demise of almost all Labour-run councils across England. The exceptions will be in industrial and metropolitan areas. This raises questions as to whether democracy is being undermined.

This will undoubtedly be debated again when the white paper is published later this year, along with another frenzy of speculation as to who will go with who.