Will unitary authorities improve the “real life of people”?

Mo Mowlam once said that “it’s the real life of people that needs change”, and yet we see with this government that it’s not the ‘real life of people’ but the structures of government and the authorities, that apparently need ‘change’. Whilst structural reform can help to improve the delivery of changes for people, there has been little demonstration that the current proposed structural changes, sounded out ahead of the government’s ‘Devolution and Economic Recovery Whitepaper’ next month, will actually improve the ‘real life of people’.

Plans for unitary authorities in Gloucestershire

A key part of the reported devolution reforms proposed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, is to reduce the number of district councils, combining them with county councils to form unitary authorities. Two thirds of the 218 district and county councils in England are projected to be in line for abolition and subsuming into unitary authorities. 

Gloucestershire is one of counties looking to be part of these changes, with the sharing of resources being something that some of its six district, borough and city councils have been attempting in various ways over the last 10 years of funding pressures. 

In the districts of the Cotswolds, work has already seen the creation of a shared employment organisation Publica, which provides and employs the majority of staff and basic council services for the Cotswold District, West Oxfordshire District, Forest of Dean District and Cheltenham Borough Councils. 

Though this has helped balance the books for these councils, whether it has truly helped to change the ‘real life of people’ is another question and one which could have answers that don’t give an immediate thumbs up to the government’s new devolution reforms. 

Simply having a look at the 2018-19 Public Health report for Gloucestershire County Council (the most recent one available) shows the extent of the problems faced within each of the six councils within Gloucestershire, especially the Cotswold District.

Deprivation in “affluent” Cotswolds

The Cotswold District, known for its various picturesque villages and countryside scenes that in turn have brought a level of affluence to the district, with Cotswold being the second least deprived district in Gloucestershire, does have a deeper story of social disadvantage, isolation and poverty. 

In a 2017 report by the Barnwood Trust on living standards and inequalities within Gloucestershire, the Cotswold District was noted as themost deprived district in the county for ‘Barriers to housing and services’”. This status sits uncomfortably with the 2011 census that put the district in the top ten in the Country for the number of second homes, with 5,898  usual residents elsewhere, with a second address in the district. Some 72 addresses per 1,000 people in the district were registered to someone with a home address outside of the district. On top of this, 1 in 5 Cotswold residents live in an area where it takes over 45 minutes to access essential services.

The district council is now focused on dealing with this problem, drawing up an empty homes strategy 2019-2024 and pursuing a housing strategy to expand supply, aiming to oversee 9,614 new homes built between 2011 and 2031 as part of Gloucestershire’s wider Local Plan. How new changes to the structure of Gloucestershire’s local authorities will impact this is unknown, though they most certainly represent a likely change in the accountability of this plan being overseen in the district and its impact on wider service and infrastructure funding. 

But during the coronavirus pandemic it was also highlighted through a debate over the flight of some to countryside or coastal second-homes including in the Cotswolds, the affluence and entitlement of second-owners which pose issues for local authorities. This is particularly acute when 80% of the Cotswold district is situated within the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) drawing in many second-home owners as shown above, as well as bringing a rightful assortment of restrictions on house building.

It all points for a consideration, amongst the government’s apparent expansion of powers for local authorities, of the need for the empowerment of councils to restrict second-home ownership within areas that have existing restrictions on housing building such as AONBs. Rural districts have a need for more concentrated powers and accountability to allow them to balance both their rural countryside environment, often protected through existing legislation such as green belts and national parks, with the demand for affordable housing among their populaces. 

Rural areas could face destruction if the removal of district level authorities is not done with the need for change for rural people and communities in mind, leaving them simply exposed to the demands of urban areas. This has and often sees an attempt to turn rural areas into heritage centres and large playgrounds, abandoning rural populations with limited services. Unitary authorities can’t simply gain powers but reinforce rural deprivation through the continuation of ‘barriers to housing and services’.

More articles by George Richmond:

How can we afford restructuring now?

Yet the elephant in the room of all of this and the biggest question for the government’s restructuring of local authorities is, is there going to be proper funding for all of this? Are there going to be greater financial powers, borrowing and tax-raising powers for local authorities? We have already seen in the last couple of years, particularly with the coalition’s devolution reforms where there was limited funding accompanying them, very little ‘real change’ actually occurring in most people’s lives as a result. Instead we see bankruptcy and apathy grow. Turnout for police and crime commissioners’ and the metro mayors’ elections have been poor and various councils have warned repeatedly of spending pressures, with Northamptonshire County Council issuing ‘Section 114’ notices, essentially deeming it bankrupt. 

Cotswold district may not seem to be an area that is in need of a major cash-injection, seeing decreases in crime, unemployment and poor wages between 2015 and 2019, but on top of the locally unevaluated consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, there are already recognised social deprivations and problems. Many of them are not necessarily the responsibility of the district council, but raise again concern that in spite of the government’s move to centralise district and county council powers together, there is a need for continued focus, resourcing and accountability on a rural district level.  

Cotswold was ranked as the third worst in Gloucestershire for social mobility in the Director of Public Health’s report to the County Council 2018-19. This placing was concluded from the Cotswold being the worst in Gloucestershire for youth social mobility (judged on the performance of young people on free school meals living in the district) and the second worst for social mobility of the working lives of people living in the district (a major reason being the comparison between average house prices and the median annual salary of employees living in the area). 

Some may say that through a wider unified authority, best practices can be better shared between the districts of Gloucestershire. The reality is that this unified authority in relation to these social and economic problems are already in existence in the form of Gloucestershire County Council, but these fail to deal with the divergent issues and environments within the districts. 

Can large unitary authorities be local?

We have already seen in the past that when Gloucestershire is approached as a unified entity its county level affluence can lead to a lack of appreciation for more localised problems; education funding was only recently sufficiently provided to Cheltenham and Cotswold comprehensives following extensive campaigning by Gloucestershire schools and MPs.

It is welcome to see that the Leader of Cotswold District Council, Joe Harris, understands the need for more nuanced and focused provision of local council services, stating that “many residents here in the Cotswolds and other districts around the county think Shire Hall in Gloucester is remote. The question you have got to ask yourself is ‘what does Lechlade in the far corner of our district have in common with somewhere like Coleford in terms of those locality issues?’. It’s probably not a lot”, and that instead of one unitary authority, a split of West and East Gloucestershire into two unitary authorities is being considered.

What is clear is a government aim to turn a whole load of district and county councils into unitary authorities with a directly elected mayor and extra powers, must not become a simplified one-size-fits-all with little reflection on the real impact and relevance of these reforms to the provision of local services and improvements. This is particularly important for rural districts where the social, economic and environmental problems are far more uniquely balanced between the demands of outside urban wishes to enjoy and gain from the countryside environment of the areas, but the basic social and economic needs of rural communities which have the added pressures of outside demands.

The time for messing around with statutory window-dressing is over. Any changes now to the structure of local authorities must see real and necessary powers handed to local politicians with actual funding or funding powers to provide substance behind the legislative paper. And of course fundamentally these changes in the government’s legislation and in turn the response of local authorities, such as Gloucestershire, must have the ultimate ability and desire to change the ‘real life of people’ for the better. 

George Richmond lives in the Cotswold District.
He is the new rural affairs officer for the South West Young Fabians.