Cuts Watch #290: Super councils
Three Conservative-controlled London councils – Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea – have announced plans to merge their most important services. In a joint statement, the leaders of the three Boroughs declared that their initial focus would be on children’s services, to be followed by environmental services, family services and corporate services; they would, they promised, preserve “the democratic sovereignty of local authorities.”
The goal, the three leaders insisted, was “to deliver more for less” and they have suggested that the move could save £100 million. Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that the councils are “leading the way.”
Hammersmith and Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh has admitted that there will be “significant reductions” in staff. UNISON Regional Secretary Linda Perks has warned that “services and standards will fall, as decision making becomes even more removed from local people.” Peter Allenson, the UNITE national officer for local government has warned councils “not to rush into untested structures which could see service users unsure who to turn to when they need help.”
The Spending Review announced that local government funding will be cut by 26% over the next four years, and Council Tax is to be frozen next year (though the government will partially compensate some local authorities for the lost revenue.) To cope with these drastic cuts several other local authorities are considering mergers; others already share services. These include Poole and Bournemouth, Christchurch and East Dorset and West Dorset and Weymouth in the West Country, Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham in South London, Hambleton and Richmondshire in Yorkshire and Babergh and Mid Suffolk in East Anglia. Too many local authorities already share chief executives or specific services to list here. The Scottish government is actively promoting “more collaboration, more co-operation, more sharing of resources and services” but with half an eye to cutting Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
Anyone can understand that local authorities are anxiously looking for ways to save services but some politicians go further; they have a vision of many fewer, larger authorities – this seems at odds with the coalition’s commitment to localism and decentralisation. There is very little evidence of what the electorate in these areas thinks about the process, but Rutland’s long fight to regain its county council suggests that small “inefficient” councils that represent genuine communities are often very popular.