Why financial, political and placemaking realities mean council mergers are about to increase, by Catriona Riddell

Councils in Surrey recently announced that they were aiming to move from the current two-tier structure with eleven districts and one county council to unitary status, possibly one council, possibly two – that bit is still up for debate.

For many this was out of the blue, but for those that have been watching local government closely over the last year or so, especially the last few months, it was inevitable.

Two-tier structures, which still cover a large proportion of England, have been struggling to manage the huge costs of providing social care and other essential services.

They have also been struggling to support place-based growth because of the fragmentation of responsibilities, as recently highlighted in the County Council Network-commissioned report by Grant Thornton

We have already seen the counties of Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Dorset going down the unitary route in the last couple of years, but for Surrey and others, it was the Covid-19 straw that seems to have finally broken the camel’s back.

 The government has been clear that there are potentially significant rewards on offer for those areas that are willing to negotiate a deal. But this offer has not been taken up widely, possibly because of the experience of those that have already negotiated deals in two-tier areas and the fact that, without structural change, managing devolved funding and responsibilities can be messy. 

The Cambridge & Peterborough and West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authorities simply added another layer of governance sitting on top of structures that already included counties, districts, unitary authorities and parish/town councils, all with different responsibilities that impact on place-making.

Recent spats between the mayors and local authorities in both of these areas around planning and infrastructure investment decisions have highlighted how unproductive this heavy-handed structure can be.

The high-profile Housing and Growth Deal in Oxfordshire, negotiated in 2017, which required the local authorities to prepare a joint plan, has been hindered by the change in leadership, and therefore priorities, of just one authority, South Oxfordshire District Council.

For many people working within and with the planning system, a critical part of making this work better is the need to change local government structures to make them simpler, with single councils being responsible for place-based growth, where possible.

Local government restructuring has been on and off the table so many times in the last 30 years and for many, it has been put in the ‘too difficult’ box – until now.  

This time round though, the stars seem to be aligned. Our Covid-19 experience has highlighted the fact that split responsibilities and funding to deal with social and health care is no longer viable.

It has also made it clear that the public sector will have to be much better at aligning long-term spatial and infrastructure priorities to support the country’s economic recovery.

Places with a clearly articulated narrative around growth and what this means for their area, supported by a long-term investment framework and robust governance structure, will be in a stronger position to support the recovery, as well as to deliver the clean growth that everyone wants to see. 

The government has already announced that there will be a Devolution White Paper in September, and MHCLG Minister Simon Clarke has hinted very strongly that areas that want a devolution deal or combined authority will have to form unitary authorities as a first step

The government has five clear years to do this, and will be keen to do it quickly, with rumours of the first tranche of new unitary councils to be in place by May 2022.  And of course, running in parallel are the Government’s plans to radically reform the planning system. 

This may therefore be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think about both local government structure and, at the same time, how to manage place-based growth, especially what the planning system’s role should be.

The worry is that discussions around devolution and reform of the planning system appear to be happening in isolation from each other, which significantly limits the prospects of getting this right.

So, when thinking about how to respond to the government’s proposals around planning reform, please think also about how this could work within a different, arguably simpler, local government structure to help the government join the dots up.

Catriona Riddell is strategic planning convenor for the Planning Officers Society and a freelance consultant.

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