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Local government reorganisation must heed the lessons of COVID-19 on the importance of place

A report commissioned by the County Councils Network on merging district and borough councils with county councils has sparked a lively debate on the future structure of local government in England. Mutual Ventures’ Jamie McMahon, argues that debate must learn the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis on the importance of place-based councils.

The optimum structure for local government in England is a debate as old as time. However, a much-anticipated White Paper on ‘devolution and local recovery’ is predicted to replace successive governments’ bottom-up approach with something that looks more like a top-down reorganisation.

The White Paper is expected to recommend significant change to the two-tier structure in England, and do so within an ambitious timetable for a Government managing all the consequences of a global pandemic, finalising Britain’s future relationship with the European Union and delivering on its levelling-up agenda.

The desire for reorganisation is not new. Years of budget and service pressures mean many councils are already exploring or have implemented changes. This ranges from small-scale back office integration, such as joint leadership teams, to mergers with neighbouring authorities and the creation of county unitary authorities, such as those being discussed in Cumbria, Somerset and many other areas.

Regardless of your views on what the optimum structure for local government is, it is vital that any reorganisation in local government must learn the lessons from COVID-19 on the importance of place. As we emerge from lockdown, and public sector organisations consider how to organise services in the future, it must acknowledge the heightened importance of place-based community working and the role public services play in shaping and protecting communities. It must not only be a debate about which options can save the most money.

During the initial response to the pandemic, councils demonstrated their value with a rapid response built upon the intimate knowledge of their communities. A Chief Executive I spoke to recently highlighted his pride at how the Council has supported the over 170 new community groups that sprung up in response to COVID-19, on top of all the traditional ‘friends of’ groups that is bread and butter for most local authorities. Knowledge such as this allowed them to understand the dietary requirements of different communities shielding, not just providing a one-size-fits-all approach to those in need.

Based on this heightened respect for the role of place-based services, it is important that the debate around any reorganisation of local government must demonstrate how these local community links are enhanced. Whatever the optimum model for local government in each area turns out to be, it is essential that the desire to save money does not break the precious bonds between local democratic organisations and the communities they represent.

In particular, district and borough councils must be heard in the debate. The same Chief Executive told me that 90% of the services in demand during the crisis were non-statutory, for example economic support and open spaces. So now is the time for district and borough councils to speak with confidence about the importance of the services they provide, statutory and non-statutory, and what matters most to people in their areas.

Heeding the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is about putting place at the centre of public services. Councils of all shapes and sizes must set out ambitious plans for public services within a structure of local government that best meets the needs of the public in their area. Working with neighbours and partners, it is time to set a clear long-term plan for sustainable public services – one that is rooted in communities.

You may be interested in our work on how a co-operative framework could underpin councils’ strategies for thriving communities. Read more here.

For more information about how Mutual Ventures can support your council, contact Jamie on jamie.mcmahon@mutualventures.co.uk or call 07875 304911.

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