In planning the future for local government we must not repeat the mistakes of the past
It is 54 years since the last effective action plan for England’s local government was published.
The Redcliffe-Maud commission examined the 1,300 local authorities which largely reflected a country where the only means of transport was by coach, cart, horse or foot. Anticipting the quite changed mobility and communication of train, car, bus, telephone and much else they devised proposals to replace the existing with 62 unitary authorities that were broadly based on the big conurbations and unitary counties.
It is impossible to calculate the immense cost that failure to implement those proposals has imposed on our economy. I say this as someone who has wrestled with the impediments to change during three periods in the Department of the Environment, two of them as secretary of state. If one looks across the advanced world it is easy to see how far behind we have become in delivering local administration that is clearly led, enjoys a degree of real devolved power and is designed to reflect economic and social communities.
Top of the priorities for Michael Gove should be a creation of a new wave of mayors
There has been progress but it has been by negotiation and compromise. The slowest ship in the convoy determined the pace. Our indifferent educational standards, lack of skills and shortage of houses reflect Labour’s indifference to the private sector and Conservative pressure from nimbyism. Goodness knows how much it has cost us to sustain two levels of often conflicting local administration.
The late Peter Walker, as environment secretary, was responsible for the first and most substantial progress in the early 1970s when he reduced the number of authorities to just over 300. London obtained its mayoralty in the late 1990s and the last significant advance came when George Osborne and Greg Clark were in charge, as chancellor and local government secretary respectively. Conurbation and city mayors are now a significant feature of the. political landscape.
It remains to be seen whether the recent white paper proposals persuade other authorities to join the club. Set against the challenges facing our Brexit economy, it is as though we have decided to march to the sound of the guns with one hand tied behind our backs. Add to this the adjustments caused by climate change and independence from Russian energy, and it is obvious that every sinew must be strained in a national programme of change.
Local government must be equipped to play a major part. It must be led by people recognised locally for their achievements and not simply as reflections of their parties’ standing in national opinion polls. There is evidence that new leaders are already rising above traditional party labels.
These leaders must devise local strategies and negotiate their implementation with the government. Only in this way will the strengths of each individual community be the building block for growth and the weaknesses the targets for elimination.
Government must adapt its own practices to give substance to the evolving relationship with local leaders. Much larger parts of central government capital funding should be distributed competitively over longer periods. It is quite unacceptable that George Osborne’s reforms in this direction have been eclipsed and the cash reverted to Whitehall departments. The Treasury could fund much of additional local expenditure by ending two-tier government, as I did in Scotland and Wales in the 1990s.
There will be those who argue that the government has been diverted by Brexit and Covid from the reform of local government. Nothing can be further from the truth. These challenges are in themselves huge, but their solution demands the most effective response. Virtually half this parliament has been wasted. There are no short-term fixes. There is time, however, to demonstrate that the government has the energy and the agenda to avoid snail’s pace progress.
Top of the priorities for Michael Gove should be a creation of a new wave of mayors particularly in the towns and cities of the North, which urgently need strong leadership to reinvent themselves after a generation of neglect and deindustrialisation.
Lord Heseltine is a non-affiliated peer and former deputy prime minister.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.