Local government – a dog’s dinner

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham (photo: The BMA (CC BY-NC 2.0))

Paul Salveson on regional planning tiers and the promise of flatpack democracy 

The May local elections saw the Tories get a good kicking in the first test of the Sunak government’s popularity: they lost over a thousand council seats, while Labour became the largest party in local government. But let’s look beyond short-term gains on May 4th.

Local government in England is changing, and it isn’t for the better. New unitary authorities have been set up for North Yorkshire and what was previously ‘Cumbria’ with second-tier authorities such as South Lakeland. Two unitaries will now cover the whole of Cumbria – Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness. The latter will stretch from as far north as Alston down to Barrow and Ulverston. The area covered by North Yorkshire is similarly vast. Local? Hardly. Yet, at the same time, the loss of ‘strategic’ county councils like Cumbria, replaced by smaller unitaries, make strategic planning more difficult. Transport is an obvious area. Whilst the return of traditional names such as Cumberland and Westmorland is welcome, the practical result will be fragmentation and poorer services – with a huge loss of accountability. These new bodies are too big to be ‘local’ but not big enough to be strategic. Once again, the absence of a regional tier of government in England sticks out like a sore thumb. 

In the more urban areas of the North and Midlands, the trend has been towards ‘combined authorities’, and Greater Manchester has probably gone furthest down that road, now under the leadership of mayor Andy Burnham. The combined authorities, covering areas that once had directly elected metropolitan county councils, do bring a more strategic approach, but the issues of accountability and legitimacy are big problems which very few politicians are willing to recognise.  

Supporters of the combined authorities argue that accountability comes through the constituent authority leaders, of which Greater Manchester has ten. But that’s not good enough. The district leaders are elected to represent their own ward within their districts. Giving them wider responsibility for governance of an area covering three million people is ridiculous. Apart from anything else, if you’re the leader of a metropolitan district, you’ll have your work cut out managing your own authority, let alone the whole of Greater Manchester (or Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, West Midlands, etc.). 

The only political party I’m aware of which has seriously addressed these issues is the tiny Yorkshire Party, which has two councillors. It has proposed the eminently sensible idea of a single Yorkshire region with its own assembly, with a network of empowered district authorities beneath it. It’s simple and it would work. It gets away from the unhelpful division of ‘metropolitan’, ‘district’ and ‘unitary’ authorities which have created a veritable dog’s dinner of English local government. 

The Yorkshire Party proposals would solve much of the problem, with the regional assembly taking power away from the centre (Whitehall and Westminster), working positively with what ought to be strong and well-resourced district councils. District councils should be the core of a local government that is truly local as well as accountable. That means not being too big, but having the agility to share resources between themselves as well as collaborating with the region on more strategic functions such as transport, waste management and tourism. 

There’s also an even more local level which the left has been pretty hopeless at engaging with: the parish and town council tier, which is currently mainly, but not exclusively, a feature of more rural areas. They can be highly conservative (with a small and large C) and ineffective, mainly concerned with keeping the ‘precept’ as low as possible.  

Yet there are some good examples of progressive coalitions running parish and town councils and doing some really exciting things. Frome is a good example, where a coalition of progressive independents and some former members of the mainstream parties have revolutionised a typical sleepy council into a hub of creative ideas and activity, transforming old buildings, encouraging small, locally-based social enterprise and lots more. It has spawned a political philosophy: ‘flatpack democracy‘ (“power tools for reclaiming local politics”), the brainchild of one of the Frome councillors, Peter Macfadyen. 

The ideas around flatpack democracy aren’t just applicable to affluent semi-rural communities like Frome. There’s no reason why communities can’t get together and create their own local councils in urban areas. The alternative which some councils like are ‘area committees’, which tend to be dominated by the parent council and are not elected. Again, self-interest kicks in here, with existing district councillors not being keen on the idea of a new tier of community government which might challenge the traditional way of doing things. Citizens’ assemblies also have a role, but they lack accountability and are not the solution – but they could be part of it.  

Both Labour and Tory councils have generally been opposed, or at best lukewarm, to new parish councils being formed in their patch, but there are powers available to the community to go round them. The National Association of Local Councils can show you how to do it. 

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