Rupert Barnes: Councils don’t define our local sense – which comes from the inherited character of where we live

16 Sep

Rupert Barnes is a former councillor on Three Rivers District Council and Vice-Chairman of the Association of British Counties.

Everyone has an opinion about structural reform in local government, apart from the actual voters. On these pages we have seen advocated, the abolition of all district councils, the abolition of county councils, mayors for all, and mayors for none. What is missing is thought about what it is all for.

In Hertfordshire, a three-way struggle has begun: status quo, or one big unitary council, or three. There is no party position. I am therefore asking our group leaders to start a wider discussion, beyond the inner rooms and engaging residents (who will end up paying for it).

I have been wound round local government in several capacities, some mercifully brief: as a normal taxpayer, a junior officer, adviser, lobbyist, writer, opposing solicitor, candidate, and councillor. In each capacity I see different sides of the beast. Each tells me that the structure needs wholesale reform, even to keep it as it is. The statutory basis of local government is a jumble of sixty years of mismatched changes and patches, with square pegs hammered into round holes -and legal fictions used just to save parliamentary time. You cannot build soundly on a chassis held together with strings and gum.

Reform in England therefore must start from scratch: repeal all and replace with a single code which reflects today’s diverse realities, not the preconceptions of 1963 and 1972, with simple, defined concepts. Then we can think sensibly about the functions of each type of council.

In any given area, the choices – unitary versus binary, and the ideal size of any council area – depend on local needs and outcomes. Arguments for unitary councils turn on efficiency, but they lose the local element, and there is no point in a council’s being efficient if means it cannot deliver the right outcome door-to-door. A local council must be nimble, and see the individual needs of each street and part of a street. Giant strategic councils may have too broad a brush.

However efficiency is a good argument. To justify their continued existence, district councils have to save millions, and this needs a fundamental review at local level of the old ways of doing things. They may share functions or pass them upwards, or outsource to the private sector. That is one thing I want our local review to consider.

Behind all this lurks local identity, or rootedness. Council arrangements do not define our local sense, which comes from the collective, inherited character of where we live. Local community identity is independent of bureaucracies. However, the suspicion remains that changes in administrative boundaries are trying to move us to another place and name, so changes are resisted and innovation stifled. It would be easier if there were an uncoupling of the two ideas; place and administration.

In July last year, the MHCLG published a paper ‘Celebrating the Historic Counties of England‘, under their “communities” brief. It recognises the importance of traditional county identities and encourages councils to do more to celebrate them. The noise coming out of the Ministry now re-enforces that. In getting excited about changing things then, we must be sensitive to what remains and what strengthens community ties.

A conscious uncoupling can be achieved in resetting the structure of local government. Strategic functions are carried out by “county councils” largely for historical reasons, but they are not counties as generations understood them, and they increasingly fail to resemble anything one would recognise as a county. In reform, these ‘strategic areas’ need no longer borrow the abused name of ‘county’ and so need not be tied to an approximation of an ancient shire. Local objections to change based on wounded county identity will evaporate: residents will see their historic county is unchanged. We can reform boldly, but also have the confidence to reckon our sense of place not by which passing bureaucracy runs the local tip, but by the heritage of home.