And Your Next Mission, Mr Pickles, Should You Choose to Accept It…
In the area in which I live, and in many parts of the country, there are three levels of local government.
We have a County Council, whose main responsibility is running the local schools, and also has a number of assorted other responsiblilities.
We have a District Council, which sorts out things like refuse collection (but not disposal – that’s the County Council), planning, housing and a few other assorted bits and pieces.
And we have a Town Council, which covers an area pretty much the same as the District Council, and is responsible for … hardly anything actually. (Maintenance of graveyards and swings seems to be about it.)
Do we really need all those three layers?
It is completely clear to me that the Town Council could be abolished tomorrow and all its few responsibilities transferred to the District Council, with no ill effects whatsoever, except to the staff at the Town Council who would lose their jobs. The Town Council serves absolutely no useful purpose, and the District could easily take on everything it does within a couple of weeks.
Any attempt to abolish these “Town Councils” seems to get bogged down in some irrelevant debate about parish councils, which are legally similar but in practice a very different animal. Parish councils in villages are arguably useful. Town Councils, which often simply duplicate their local District Council, are not.
And then we come to the District and the County. Do we really need both? I believe not not, actually.
This will become especially clear as the government continues steadily converting schools to Academies, which are centrally funded by Whitehall.
The case for merging County Councils and District Councils is not as clear-cut as the compelling case for abolishing Town Councils, but it is still rather hard to argue against.
Of course, the front line staff would all remain in place. But all those administrators, all those HR people, all those clerks and indeed all those unnecessary councillors, could go.
John Major’s government made a half-hearted attempt to carry out this reform. They succeeded in places like West Berkshire, which has been running quite happily with single tier local government for some time now. But in most places their review concluded that “no change” was the best policy. In other words, they bottled out.
In the area in which I lived at the time, two of the local District Councils came up with a plan to merge and take over the responsibilities of the County, but were overruled on the grounds that local people did not support the plan. (Needless to say, the truth is that hardly any local people expressed an opinion either way.)
This is an “easy win” for the government, as it tries to get its finances under control, and the man responsible for this area of policy is one of the government’s most robust and forceful operators, Eric Pickles.
How about it, Eric? Are you up for finishing the job Mr Major started but didn’t have the balls to finish?