GOVERNMENT IS FORCING LOCAL AUTHORITIES TO CHOOSE BETWEEN RECOVERY AND UNJUSTIFIED REORGANISATION, WARN DISTRICT COUNCILS
Any move to redraw the local government map scrapping districts in favour of creating a series of enormous councils larger than any found across the whole of Europe would stop residents taking back control of their lives and risks alienating and leaving communities behind, a new report by the District Councils’ Network (DCN) warns today.
The Government is being urged to resist calls to centralise important local services – for planning, waste, high streets and more – into huge county unitary bodies in its forthcoming Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper.
Britain already has some of the largest councils in Europe. But proposals to convert county councils into enormous all-purpose authorities would not only dilute the voice of the resident but lose the distinctive character and needs of our market towns, villages, new towns and coastal communities in a hideous and remote “Computer Says No” bureaucracy.
The DCN, which represents 187 district councils in England, argues that local councils around the country should be free to continue to focus on leading the charge to reboot the economy, jobs and growth, rather than getting bogged down rearranging deckchairs in local government.
With limited resources in local government, we face a stark choice between recovery or reorganisation. District councils believe our absolute focus should be on recovery.
It says further centralisation will undoubtedly destroy the community spirit and resilience, we have seen street by street, up and down the country in the fight against coronavirus.
Proposals for county unitary councils would be 122 times larger than the average council in Germany, 14 times larger than Denmark, and five times large than the current average for all councils in England, which is already the most centralised country in Europe – and local public referendums to create new large unitary councils are consistently lost.
If enacted, there would be more councils and councillors concentrated in London than in the whole of the shire counties of England in an unacceptable repudiation of the Government’s “Levelling Up” agenda. The voice of the resident and business outside London would be lost and we would all be poorer for that.
Approaching local decision-making from the ‘numbers on spreadsheets’ approach, ignores the diversities of our communities and the local voice people want and need.
The Government’s own advice demonstrates that the “bulk buying” approach from enormous councils does not translate into cost savings or performance gains, that evidence shows that as authorities get much larger service delivery gets bogged down in more committees and layers of management that work against efficiency and the ability to respond quickly to events and to be truly accessible to residents and local businesses
But with areas almost as large as Northern Ireland and with populations over a million, they would cease to resemble in any way what we currently understand as the ‘local’ in local government. This is not devolution, it is centralisation.
The DCN’s new report, Power in Place: Devolution and districts driving our recovery also argues the creation of new county unitary councils would create a post-code lottery in the value of each vote, undermining a cornerstone of democracy.
On average county unitary councils would be 4.5 times less representative of local communities than existing unitary councils.
District councils provide 86 out of 137 essential local government services to over 22 million people – 40 per cent of the population – and cover 68 per cent of the country by area.
They play a key role in local communities, providing services such as building homes, collecting waste, regenerating town centres, preventing homelessness, keeping streets clean and maintaining parks. Most importantly they have proved by a long way to be the most effective level of government in tackling the Covid Crisis both in terms of protecting and supporting vulnerable residents and in leading the way in business support and recovery.
Cllr John Fuller OBE, Chairman of the District Councils’ Network, said:
“The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated emphatically that local works best, and that bigger is rarely better. The Government’s own evidence points that way too.
“Whether you are talking about supporting shielded residents, housing rough sleepers, getting business grants to where they are needed as well as providing essential services to our communities, districts have delivered comprehensively and at speed, because we know our residents and businesses.
“Any proposals to abolish districts and transfer services into new enormous councils would be absolute folly and uproot local government from local communities. The evidence is clear that bigger local government is not better or cheaper local government.
“Mayoral reform, by working together more effectively at a larger scale to draw down infrastructure funds from the money that would otherwise have been spent in Brussels is to be welcomed in some circumstances , but not at the expense of unnecessary tinkering with the system that demonstrated when the chips were down over COVID-19, that every bin could be collected and every fridge filled by the local district councils with the feet and boots on the ground.
“Devolution means decisions being taken at the level closest to the people affected by those decisions, not centralising them into administrations with populations way over a million people, and across geographies almost as large as Northern Ireland.
“Right now we must be focused on achieving jobs and growth; using devolution to empower local responses around the towns and cities that people live their lives and businesses do their business.”