Friday, 29 October 2010

The Dawn of the Super-Council

One of Stodge's laws of politics - number eight if memory serves - is that the quality of your argument is directly proportional to the seniority of the rebuttal. In other words, if someone powerful has to be wheeled out to refute your argument, you've made a strong argument and rattled a few cages.

Simon Jenkins, a columnist growing in my estimations as one of the few who is able to constructively criticise Coalition policies without lapsing into Labourist polemic, wrote a fascinating article in Tuesday's Evening Standard. I commend it as a valuable counter-argument to the prevailing maxim that the way forward for cash-strapped local authorities is through collaboration, resource sharing and downright merging.

Words like collaboration and partnership are the new lingua franca of local councils. Faced with cuts from 20 to 40% in budgets over the next four years, there has been a febrile hunt to find areas which can be cut back without affecting frontline services. Many Councils have hit on the idea of collaborative working especially in the back office environment.

However, groups like the South East Seven, West London Alliance and the more formalised merger of the structures of Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham hint at something rather more profound and worrying. As Jenkins argues, the NHS experience doesn't bode well for these new "super authorities" with a bureaucracy increasingly disconnected from the general population.

Then we have the Councils themselves or should that be the Councillors. For a group of politically like-minded authorities, collaboration will make sense but there's no guarantee of ongoing political stability and if you have two Conservative authorities merging then one becomes Liberal Democrat after a set of elections, there's no guarantee new administrations will want to continue the policies and processes of their predecessors.

I can see the argument for merging back office functions but that's about all and it's probably fair to take a long look at how Councillors themselves operate. In many Authorities, only a small number have any real decision-making power and if you ask most Officers, they will tell you some of these Members wield their power without being all that effective.

Jenkins's article drew responses from both Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster Council and Bob Neill, former leader of the Conservative Group on the GLA. They were not surprisingly supportive of the concept of Councils merging but neither were really able to discount Jenkins's basic arguments regarding accountability and the danger of an expanding bureaucracy.

Once Councils see just how much their grants will be cut next month, we may well get a clearer idea of the evolution of local Government over the next few years.

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