Merging councils is no magic bullet to fight austerity

First published in The Guardian Public Leaders Network Monday 5th March 2018

Council mergers may look efficient, but local government reform is like Brexit: a wasteful wild-goose chase.

On 26 February, the government gave the go-ahead for Dorset’s nine councils to create two new authorities. On paper, this looks like a no brainer. But it’s a decision officials, councillors and residents in the county may yet come to regret.

The new structure, aimed at saving £108m over six years, would come into effect in April 2019, assuming it gets parliamentary approval. Separate councils for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole will be replaced with one new unitary council, while the second unitary council will comprise what is now Dorset county council and the district councils of East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset, and Weymouth and Portland.

Support for the decision is hardly surprising. There are 353 local authorities in England: 27 county councils, 201 district councils, and 125 unitary authorities, including 33 London boroughs and 36 metropolitan boroughs.

In 2016 a report by EY for the County Councils Network (CCN) concluded (pdf) that creating 27 unitary authorities in England could save up to £2.9bn. The single unitary option has the shortest payback period and the most effective platform for financial sustainability and reducing council tax for residents. Counties also have the lowest back office and management overheads – just 6% of their budgets, compared to 46% at the average district council.

However, there is no official government guidance on what constitutes an acceptable model for local government. A range of models are being proposed, many of which make little sense and may actually end up adding extra cost. Proposals in Oxfordshire and elsewhere suggest creating four or even five “district unitaries” and then a small combined authority to provide additional capacity to deliver strategic services.

Breaking up counties into smaller unitary authorities doesn’t make sense geographically, and could unnecessarily fragment services at a county level if they don’t have the same boundaries as other public services like fire, police and the NHS. It’s true that there may be value in rethinking who delivers services such as housing and planning, but strategically that would mean looking to larger, not smaller, units.

But the real point is that local government reform is not and has never been about efficiency; it’s about politics, with a large and small “p”. There can be elements of gerrymandering – when the Labour government sought to consolidate its power base in Devon in 2009 by creating a unitary authority in Exeter, it would have effectively cut the heart out of the county both financially and geographically, and impoverish the parts of the county more likely to support the opposition. The whole notion of localism is too often about what the government wants, rather than what makes most logical sense for residents and communities.

In Dorset’s case, the councils’ chief finance officers have stated that authorities within Dorset are solvent and have sufficient balances to remain this way for the foreseeable future . Four options were proposed for Christchurch council after consultation in 2016, one of which was no change, an option later rejected by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Many believe t the whole debate about reorganisation could simply distract councils from delivering savings and ambitious devolution deals. Paul Carter, leader of Kent county council and CCN , has claimed (paywall) it could result in three years of misery, as well as creating friction and tension between councils.

I can heartily agree, having myself lived through a tense legal battle over local government reform that wasted an estimated £200,000 of our council’s budget and reduced our capacity to deliver essential services because of the chaos it created.

Of the nine councils that will be scrapped in Dorset, three did not fully support the proposal and Christchurch council still plans to find a legal means to oppose being merged with neighbouring councils.

Local government reform is like Brexit: at best, a disingenuously simple answer to a complex question, at worst a smokescreen. Either way, it’s a wasteful and lengthy wild-goose chase where nobody can clearly define how to deliver a way forward that works for everyone.

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I live in a tower block, but I don’t want to be rehoused

The housing association that built my two-year-old block has acted quickly and responsibly to reassure residents that we are safe.

First published in The Guardian Housing Network 27th June 2017

In the wake of the Grenfell tower tragedy, one of my neighbours expressed concern about the cladding on our building. Initially I was incredulous and dismissive; our building is only two years old and was built by a housing association, which would have had to conform to stringent safety standards and regulations. However, like many other residents in London tower blocks, it turns out that I live in a building clad in Reynobond PE panels – the same as those used in Grenfell Tower.

This fact came to light in emails from the housing association, which has been extremely transparent and responsive in communicating with residents. Nonetheless, there has been a degree of panic and outrage, and some residents have complained to our MP, who has demanded that we should all be rehoused immediately and the cladding removed.

But this is not social housing; the residents of my building are leaseholders. And as a local government officer myself, I believe it would be wrong to waste public funds rehousing us for no good reason.

I feel that the anger towards the housing association is misplaced. Who’s to blame here is not clear cut. It’s the same with the 600 other buildings across the UK.

At a national level, there are huge questions over the regulations, the supplier of the panels, the builders who chose to use them and whether or not councils and housing associations were aware of the issues with the cladding. Given that this particular housing association has invested almost £50m into 100 shared ownership apartments, of which they are still the primary owner, I do not believe that it would deliberately jeopardise that investment.

I’m not suggesting there is not a problem here. One of the issues is similar to the often naive or inadequate approach to contract management experienced by many councils. In the past I have complained about poor management of costs by this association and the resulting service charge increase, but on the whole it is a good housing association that cares about its residents and is committed to working with us on any issues we have.

Just after I moved in, for instance, the housing director came round to talk to residents about tackling antisocial behaviour on our estate. Since the Grenfell Tower fire, the housing association has been quick to reassure residents that fire safety was carefully considered when the the building was designed and that the fire brigade rates it as low risk.

We have a sprinkler system, and communal areas free of possessions and rubbish. There is a fire fighting lift, compartmentalisation of dwellings and areas of the building, a wet riser, emergency lighting and power and automatic opening vents, which enable escape and access routes to be kept clear of smoke in the event of a fire.

All the equipment is inspected weekly and serviced in line with manufacturers’ recommendations. Fire risk assessments are carried out annually, and last week the housing association asked the Building Research Establishment and independent experts to carry out a review and make recommendations regarding potentially removing and replacing the cladding. Additional patrols and safety checks have begun in the meantime, as well as visits to every flat to check fire doors and test smoke alarms.

With all of this in mind, I personally feel that we are lucky and should retain a sense of perspective. The focus now needs to be on addressing the failings that led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, supporting the victims and prosecuting those responsible.