John Fuller: This pandemic has shown that bigger local government does not mean better local government

Cllr John Fuller OBE is the Leader of South Norfolk District Council and the Chairman of the District Councils’ Network

The opportunity to take back control drove millions to the ballot box in June 2016. The country voted to take back greater powers to shape their own destiny, and against remote elite and expensive bureaucracies that take decisions to constrain our lives in ways that are hard to influence.

It doesn’t just apply to Europe: English local government is already the largest and most remote in the western world, with voters already the least well represented.

Yet the lessons of the pandemic have proved again what is fact: bigger local government is not better local government. While national command and control sometimes stumbled, our local district councils ensured that individuals, families, and businesses could keep calm and carry on.

In streets up and down our country, it was the local district council that ensured every fridge was filled, every bin collected, every evicted sofa-surfer had a roof placed over their head, and every small business had the financial help and regulatory forbearance to adapt and pivot towards a new normal.

And we were able to do this because we have the local connection, the local accountability, and the local knowledge, to customise our approach, one family at a time, one street at a time, and one place at a time.

Your local district and smaller unitary councils represent our market towns, our cathedral cities, coastal communities, new towns, and the countryside, across 60 per cent of England. Our agility at street level allowed national government to focus on the big issues whilst safe in the knowledge that the final mile was cared for.

But what’s this?

In the last few weeks there is a small group of people clamouring to put all of this at risk. Astonishingly, Conservative county councils are making the case for turning their backs on learning the lessons on what worked best in the depths of our Covid despair.  They are proposing to dismantle the final mile that delivers bespoke solutions for residents in every corner of our country.

They seek to recast local government into just two dozen county-based unitary councils in a reckless race to the bottom on cheapness. It is nothing less than putting their own organisations’ survival ahead of the best interests of residents and business – and will hamper our ability to grow the national economy, one local economy at a time.

Replacing nearly 200 predominantly Conservative authorities with just 25 county unitaries where control is much more finely balanced would be a suicide mission that would put see our associations and councillor base emasculated and take the voters even further away from those who represent us.

In so doing it, would destroy the local campaigning base of the Conservative Party and leave us at a structural disadvantage against Labour’s metropolitan heartlands who would remain unmolested.

The county councils’ plans would condemn Conservative local government to permanent opposition in the Local Government Association and all the other representative bodies that control nearly a third of public expenditure.

And with 33 councils in London and just 25 in the rest of shire England, what does that say about levelling up? It is already more difficult to get Conservatives elected on the bottom rung of our democracy. In the typical Labour-run London Borough or city-based metropolitan council, it takes about 3,000 electors for a Labour candidate to win. In our county councils, in Kent, Essex and Hampshire that number is 15,000. Labour enjoys a five-times electoral advantage over us. We should be challenging this arithmetic, not reinforcing it.

But it’s worse than that. Labour councils tend to be smaller: 50-60 seats, whereas Conservative counties often comprise 80 councillors or more. So it’s also easier for those councillors of other parties to become council leaders and thus play a leading role in national policy formation.

In the mid-2000s, our leader in local government, Sandy Bruce Lockhart, and the Leader of Kent County Council, cautioned us against conniving with Labour to decimate the Party in the Shires. How ironic that we now have Conservative collaborators pushing something that even Hazel Blears as Labour’s Secretary of State dared not deliver.

Now is the time for us to focus on recovery not reorganisation. Our government’s Devolution and Recovery White Paper must recognise that a council isn’t just a transactional entity. A council has the responsibility to exceed the aspirations of residents and business, recognising and celebrating the differences in our county, not centralising with an identikit approach.

We should be devolving down even more to those organisations like our district and small unitary councils who shone when the Covid chips were down; not using it as an excuse to centralise into distant mega-bureaucracies with a ‘Computer Says No’ attitude, that are so removed from street level that they are unable to connect with the towns and cities across their sprawling landscapes.

Making an argument for cheapness is a dismal one that cannot inspire anyone. The Conservative Party stands for aspiration and efficient services that they can be shaped locally, not cheap ones they can’t. We stand against centralisation rather than devolution. We stand for shaping shared prosperity at street level to build homes, infrastructure funding, and employment to deliver true levelling up for all.

So let’s have a pattern of local government that looks forward to the needs of 2066 rather than being bogged down by boundaries laid down in 1066.

That’s not just a statement of common sense. It’s also an aspirational one which allows the Conservative Party the best chance to shape the future in every corner of our land. Let’s celebrate our historical county boundaries, but not get tripped up by them.

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Author: John Fuller


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