England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Does the government want to divide and rule?

Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay

It’s been a roller coaster week for those of us who are attempting to follow the progress (and divine the content of) the Devolution White Paper (which is all of us surely?).

The Sunday Papers trailed a full throttle version of the White Paper: it was part of No 10’s hard rain reform of the machinery of state, “prescriptive”, top down reform with two thirds of district and county councils abolished and replaced by new unitaries, combined authorities and hundreds of new elected mayors. By Monday these reports were already being walked back by MHCLG spokespeople: new authorities in a much smaller number of places (five said some), mayors, yes, but all to be done on the basis of local government assent.

On Tuesday, Simon Clarke the minister in charge stepped down unexpectedly for personal reasons, although LGC questioned whether his commitment to devolution and reorganisation had, perhaps, gone too far for some. And by Thursday the MJ was reporting that reorganisation plans were now delayed on Downing Street desks.

It has always seemed plausible that there might come a moment when party bosses paused to wonder whether infuriating hundreds of the county and district councillors who knock on doors, raise funds and win local elections, was really their top priority right now; but the truth is, for all the speculation, we don’t really know what’s going on.

But some things we do know.

We know that when you talk to local government leaders they too have no idea what will actually be in the White Paper. So, this is being done to local government not coming from local government.

We also know that different parts of the sector are at daggers drawn, commissioning research and briefing furiously to show that their model of reorganisation is the most efficient, or the most effective, or the most democratic. So, this is something that divides local government rather than unites it.

And we know that there are a whole set of fundamental questions about local government that are not being answered. How is it to be funded? What is the future of social care? How do we rebuild local economies sustainably? How do we keep communities safe and resilient? How do we harness the civic energy of local people? In short, what is local government for?

There are valid arguments to be made about changing the size and shape of local governance units and these arguments can be stacked up in all sorts of different ways (and the vehemence of the debate is, in part, because everyone and, therefore no one, is right).

But if we don’t address the fundamental questions first, we can’t hope to get reorganisation right. We’re simply rearranging the deck chairs as the iceberg looms over us. It’s a fatal confusion of form and function.

At LGIU, we’re trying to tackle those big questions through our Post-Covid Councils work: we will be publishing new work on place and community and on a new way of thinking about place shaping over the coming weeks. And we’re not alone, many sector organisations and many councils are engaged in this debate. But it’s not reflected in the government’s program. They’re just not asking the really important questions.

So, at the end of a turbulent week, we may not know any more about what’s happening with the Devo White Paper, but we still know what’s not happening. And that’s far more significant.

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