Just rearranging the deckchairs


Yesterday saw the latest in a long line of local government re-organizations. 44 councils were shut down, and replaced by 9 bigger ones. The old councils followed the traditional two-tier model, with district councils looking after housing, leisure facilities, planning and waste collection, and county councils responsible for education, social services, transport and libraries. The new councils are 'unitaries', which means one layer of government performs all those tasks. The idea is that accountability will be clearer, and costs will be minimized.

Well, maybe. But the problem with these reforms – as with most changes to local government – is that they are not underpinned by any coherent idea of what local government is for. And different ideas about local government tend to suggest very different arrangements.

If the role of local government is simply to deliver services, then you probably want very small unitary authorities (much smaller than the existing ones), which would contract out service provision and be financed by some sort of per-capita fee or property-based tax.

On the other hand, you might think that local government should be about devolving political power away from the centre, to allow more experimentation and innovation in policy, to make different areas compete to have the lowest taxes / best services, and to create a 'market' in governments where people always have an easy exit option. That view suggests somewhat larger council areas, perhaps based on the traditional counties, with broader and more extensive fundraising powers.

However, the latest changes reflect neither of these views, nor anything well thought-out in between. On the contrary, what they tend to indicate are power struggles in existing councils, and the Department of Communities and Local Government trying to make work for itself. And until we decide what the point of local government is, such reorganizations will continue to be completely pointless.