Unitary authorities – is this the future?
Much of the basic structure of local government in England has been in place for nearly half a century. The 1972 Local Government Act established the two-tier system of districts and counties that remains the predominant structure across the country. Yet in reality local government is slowly but surely moving away from that original vision. There can be no doubt that central government would like to see greater consolidation, either around larger district/borough authorities or around unitary authorities that bring together two or more districts with part of the county. However, scars remain from previous attempts at centrally-driven reorganisation making it unlikely that central government would attempt any dramatic, wholesale or country-wide reform. So while changes won’t happen in one fell swoop, creating more unitary authorities does seem to be the direction of travel.
What factors lie behind this trend and what opportunities exist in this latest wave of local government reorganisation?
The shift towards unitaries
There are a number of factors that explain why the shift is happening now:
- Mood music – there has been a general tone set from central government that consolidation is a good thing. Note for instance James Brokenshire’s statement shortly after becoming housing and communities secretary that “there is clear space and scope for unitary authorities”.
- Austerity – funding has been severely cut and accompanied by a message that sharing services and consolidation would help gain economies of scale.
- Crisis – the failings at Northamptonshire require an intervention from the centre. Local politicians and civil servants have received clear direction from the then housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid that the unitary model is the preferred option.
- Social care demand – which is rising as funds are falling. Counties in particular are feeling the financial pressure and seeking different ways to meet the demand.
- Integrated services – it makes sense to integrate all aspects of meeting the complex needs of residents. Bringing housing, benefits, anti-social behaviour and social care together under one roof should, in theory, lead to more integrated solutions.
- Devolution – delegation of central powers to a region will require authorities to work closer together, often creating the climate and logic for integration of services
Central government have also made it clear that they welcome bottom-up proposals to create unitary authorities – as long as the proposed combined authority would serve a population of more than 300,000. This is key given their reticence to impose changes themselves. Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a good degree of support for unitary reorganisation among council leaders, and indeed a 2016 survey by the Local Government Chronicle suggested that 64% of district officials agreed with the statement “there are too many councils in my area”. Of course, support from the actual localities affected is key and local opposition could prove to be a significant obstacle as recently illustrated by Christchurch Borough Council’s objection to the proposal to create two unitary authorities in Dorset. A county-led proposal in Nottinghamshire is also facing accusations by local district councils of heavy-handedness. While the direction of travel is reasonably clear, the road will be very bumpy.
What could be achieved?
It is a challenging time for local government. The view that reorganisation around unitary authorities could help under-pressure councils make efficiency savings is correct, but runs the risk of being overly simplified. Initially, unitary authorities will largely focus around the achievement of economies of scale. This is fine at one level but represents a massively missed opportunity on another. Focusing on economies of scale and reducing the unitary option to the logic of ‘bigger means cheaper’ risks missing other important opportunities to create better-run organisations and creating a real sense of ‘place’.
Our experience tells us that to achieve real benefits organisations should consider creating a fresh operating model that genuinely transforms the services being brought together. This would enable the organisations to:
- Deliver the economies of scale
- Create services that are designed around a customer
- Genuinely access the very real synergies available across people-based services (children’s, adults, housing, benefits) for the benefit of the council and the customer
- Redesign and harmonise customer journeys and processes around the customer
- Replace technology with a single integrated platform
- Access the significant remodelling benefits available when serious organisation redesign is delivered
This is a more significant transformation than simply bringing councils together, but in our experience proves in the end to be faster, more impactful and significantly better for the customer.
But what else?
The creation of a unitary could bring more significant opportunities if it is viewed as a platform for wider public service reform.
These could include:
- Greater integration with Health and Police
- The opportunity to develop a more comprehensive locality-based service model with genuine integration across organisational boundaries – not just co-location. This is particularly important when one considers that a criticism of the unitary approach has been that larger councils could be less in touch with local communities.
- The opportunity to build greater community capability, capacity and participation – a ‘Virtual Public Service’ in its own right
- The opportunity to unlock the physical assets and resources of the combined entity so that they can be made available and used by the community
Is the creation of a unitary really necessary?
Why can’t the benefits of unitarity integration simply be achieved with greater collaboration – why get hung up on organisational structures and governance? The reality is that governance, democracy and robust decision making do matter. There will always be a need for clear accountability for what happens across public service.
Our argument is that creating the structures for this to work is a big challenge and consumes huge amounts of time and effort. Having created the structures, don’t waste the opportunity to really deliver something of value from the process. The shift towards unitary authorities will open up huge opportunities across the board, but leaders should strike while the iron is hot.