Lord Heseltine’s report published today may be causing a stir in Whitehall, but if its recommendations are followed through, the effect on the town hall could be much greater.
Whilst national commentators are focusing on the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships and a National Growth Council, there is relatively little attention being paid to the recommendations regarding local authorities themselves. In particular, the recommendation that:
“All two-tier English local authorities outside London should pursue a path towards unitary status. The Government should encourage this and work with authorities to clarify the process and enable it to happen.”
There are strong arguments in favour of unitary councils, but economic growth is not one of them. Lord Heseltine is right to say the power of districts is limited, but the case for unitary authorities is not much better. His report acknowledges that unitary authorities rarely match up to functional economic market areas and therefore their influence on local economies remains limited. Unitaries could perhaps boost their effectiveness by investing on a regional basis, but I can hardly see the Coalition resurrecting Regional Development Agencies any time soon.
Reorganising local government on the basis of promoting economic growth is intended to refocus attention on the issue, but is that really the most important role for our local authorities? Not only would more unitary authorities likely struggle to make a meaningful impact, but that impact would come too late to tackle our current problems, and the transition would shift attention away from areas where local authorities really can make a difference. Shouldn’t the structure of local government be guided by those services where the local authority is a key player, such as social care and public health, rather than its bit part amongst the wider cast of regional growth funds, national growth councils and local enterprise partnerships?
Economic growth is important, but to argue for unitaries as a tool for economic growth could cause real harm through deflecting focus from the core role of Councils.