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Explainer: English local government reorganisation

Will England follow Wales in abolishing two-tier local authorities? Here’s what EHPs need to know as the government’s devolution White Paper looms closer.
14 October 2020 , Robert Weaver

One topic dominating local government forums and news outlets is reorganisation. Many commentators feel the timing could not be worse as English public and private sector EHPs battle to implement COVID-19 recovery plans. There are also concerns that EH would end up in competition for funds with education and social services if merged into a unitary authority.

You might have seen the discussion set in the context of the pending White Paper Local Government Recovery and Devolution (or, to give it its informal working title, ‘the unitary authority discussion’) – but what will this really mean for EHPs in the public and private sectors? Here are five things EHPs need to know.

Back to the future?
“Haven’t we been here before?” time travellers would be forgiven for asking when eavesdropping on conversations about local government reorganisation in 2020. However, while there has been much talk but limited action since 1974, this time the government seems set on a White Paper that will require reorganisation to be taken seriously.

It’s highly likely therefore that there will be some big changes to the type, size, number and composition of local authorities over the next few years. It’s a good idea for local authority EHPs to keep abreast of the conversations and communications in terms of what the changes could mean for their council. However front-line inspection, regulation, compliance and advice is still going to be needed for businesses, communities and residents, regardless of the operating model.

Broadening horizons
Replacing two-tier counties with unitary authorities could deliver almost £3bn in savings over five years, according to research published by the County Councils Network. It’s likely that the thought is that much of the saving will come from the ‘thinning out’ of CEOs and management teams as many counties operating a two-tier system (meaning a mix of district/borough councils and a county council) could be required to create single unitary authorities with a single CEO in charge.

So while threats exist at the top table, reorganisation could provide good opportunities for many front-line EHP staff. It would be worth taking a look at how EH works in existing unitary authorities, especially in Wales where the two-tier system was abolished in 1996.

Reorganisation could result in a broadening of experience, working as part of larger teams and an opportunity to build stronger strategic relationships with partners such as health and police. For private sector EHPs the buzzword around reorganisation is creating efficiencies, so the discussions are likely to open up opportunities to explore and make business cases to work more closely with local authorities, partners and stakeholders.

Stage management
It is envisaged the government will manage the local government reorganisation as part of a three-stage prioritisation process. Stage one will see the government working with councils that have already made their cases for local government reorganisation and that have clear ideas about how this could be done.

Next, some councils have initiated reorganisation discussions with their nearest neighbours and, while it’s early days, they have some thoughts about what they would want reorganisation to look like. These councils will be considered as part of stage two. All other councils will be part of stage three discussions and, depending on the content of the White Paper, could find Whitehall imposing ideologies if they don’t take a lead.

Timing is everything
Local government reorganisation isn’t going to happen overnight. With the unexpected resignation of Simon Clarke MP, a previously leading figure in the local authority reorganisation White Paper discussions, many think the publication date will now be well into autumn 2020, possibly later, rather than the September date initially envisaged. So the message here is for EHPs to keep calm and carry on. Reorganisation is likely to be a process that takes years, not months.

Support crew
Talk of reorganisation will naturally create nervousness and anxiety at all levels. It’s human nature to fear the unknown and think the worst. So it’s important as managers and leaders we support our staff and provide clarity where we can. We must make sure they have clear and timely communications on the local, regional and national pictures. We need to create forums where individuals are comfortable raising any issues or questions and make sure they get answers.

So yes, talk of local government reorganisation will set hares running, the what ifs and maybes are a natural part of the process. But there will also be opportunities. The key will be keeping a level head and helping those we work with, focusing on fact, not fiction.

Robert Weaver is an EHP and deputy chief executive of Tewkesbury Borough Council.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2020 issue of EHN (login required).


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