Do we need to reorganise?

I proposed a motion going to this month’s County Council meeting on the subject of local government reorganisation. Sounds pretty dry and anyway why bother?

First a bit of history. Our current pattern of local government, county and district councils and the rest, goes back some way, back to the 19th century in fact, but the current structure was established in 1974. There’s a good overview at The idea has been that district councils are responsible for matters which are more local in nature like planning, housing and refuse collection (the bins) whereas county councils are responsible for those which benefit from a wider view like roads, schools and social care.

In 1992 legislation was passed which enabled the formation of unitary authorities which combined county and district councils. That’s what resulted in Peterborough City Council being established which delivers both county and district services to the people of Peterborough.

Unitaries are perceived to be good because they save money by reducing overhead and because they make sense to people who don’t understand why there needs to be so many levels of government. However unitaries that are too small don’t save money because they don’t enjoy economies of scale and by this yardstick it can be said that Peterborough is too small.

The advent of the Combined Authority of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough (CA) means that we now have five tiers of government in most of Cambridgeshire: national, the CA, county, district and parish (or town). That would seem to be too many and ripe for rationalisation which is why the county council some time ago agreed to review options in this regard. In its wisdom it delegated the job for doing this to the CA which has since done little.

Furthermore there has been a trend to combine roles across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and to pursue joint contractual arrangements where these seem to be appropriate and that all smacks of a merger of the two councils which has never been agreed.

Hence my motion which says:

Council notes that it has at previous meetings considered local reorganisation and has referred it to the Combined Authority for it to consider and to recommend a route forward.

Council also notes the increasing joint activity between this council and Peterborough City Council to combine similar jobs and to enter into contracts together with the objective of making savings for the two authorities.

Council asks the Chief Executive to

  • confirm that such joint activity does not preclude any reorganisation which might be recommended as a result of the Combined Authority’s work; and
  • write to the Combined Authority and ask for an update on its work regarding the reorganisation and for the timetable for its completion.

So that should ensure that we don’t/haven’t painted ourselves into a corner and should get things moving but it’s got me thinking: in the real world you combine businesses if there are synergies to be had and you ‘spin them off’ if they don’t fit your core business. Why don’t we do likewise?

It makes sense to combine ‘place based’ activities in the county and district councils (roads, houses etc) so do it. But it doesn’t make sense to run social care under the same umbrella as such placed based activities. They have little in common so spin them off. It makes much more sense to ‘merge’ social care with the NHS so why not do it?

Trouble is the NHS is being endlessly reorganised so I wouldn’t wish this extra challenge on it but addressing the long term problem of funding of social care won’t be done by running it by the same people who are responsible for filling potholes. The other trouble of course is that the NHS is not accountable to local people whereas social care is.

So here’s a thought. Set up two ‘unitaries’ covering Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. One can run social care across the geography and be closely aligned with but not merged with the NHS (practically the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group). The other takes the rest and embraces the CA, the county council and the five district and city councils. And given the double yolk characteristic of C&P this should run as two autonomous bodies reflecting the different characteristics and needs of the two city regions.

So what happened at the council meeting? What happened is what generally happens with an opposition motion. The Tories amended it.  They deleted the first bullet point because a briefing note was prepared which addressed that point. Fair enough.

They then deleted the last seven words of the second bullet point which say ‘and for the timetable for its completion’. The Tories said that was confusing, one even suggested that it was a trap. I guess the fact is they don’t want to be held to a timetable. A cynic might say because it would put an end to the multiple councillor allowances that many of them get.

I refused to accept the amendment which the Tory majority voted through but I then decided that half a glass was better than none so I  voted for the emended motion. However in my final speech, movers of motions get that privilege, I suggested that the Chief Executive add a PS to her letter asking for a completion date. Not sure if she will.

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