When I was in the Royal Air Force, I used to work for a crusty old station commander who would often dispense sage words of wisdom. One of his favourite phrases was ‘Holden, you do realise that there is nothing new under the sun.’ As we start to anticipate the much heralded arrival of the Levelling Up White Paper and the next roll of the dice on devolution or county deals, his wise words seem to have a real resonance, as the debate about function versus form returns.
This is fundamentally a debate around centralisation verses decentralisation. The current push for deals could be viewed as a move towards greater centralisation as government seeks to have a smaller number of ‘strategic leaders’ with which to engage. Inevitably as districts we continue to argue that local is best, delivering services at a scale that makes sense to the people and communities that we serve. This is not always a constructive tension and could cause us as a sector to be more inward focused, leading to organisational control and power being the mantra, rather than community, economy, and opportunity for all.
Surely, if we are honest and we move towards county wide deals, we need to ensure that such deals are built on true collaboration with equal representation across the tiers. Without this representation, one of the first things that we would need to invent is a substructure, one closer to the sensible geographies that people live and work in.
A failure to do this, would inevitably lead over time to yet another wave of change, this time to seek to disaggregate the large institutions that we have developed, to allow for greater determination at a local level.
We had the chance through the pandemic to learn the power of putting the mission or function above organisation or form. Collaboration and delivery were our watch words and as a sector we delivered more than most might have reasonably expected. We even worked well with our colleagues in the NHS in a way which we have not done before. So, I guess, as I listen to the noise around county deals and the race to centralise local determination, with the collaboration under COVID almost perversely being used as an example of why bigger is best, we might be wise to reflect that ‘there really is nothing new under the sun’.
But perhaps under COVID we truly learnt the power of collaboration, across all tiers of local government and wider, with a focus on the mission (our communities or functions) which we should not discard lightly.
Trevor Holden is MD of South Norfolk and Broadland DCs