Local Government reorganisation is the spectre that never quite disappears.
Even in the days of former secretary of state Eric Pickles – who infamously claimed he had a ‘pearl handled revolver’ at the ready should anyone mention the r-word – reorganisation refused to be laid to rest.
A decade on from the last major restructure – and over a year since the so-called ‘sunset clause’ of the Cities and Devolution Act expired – reorganisation is back, and it is bigger than ever.
For a long time now, the Government has spouted out the line that restructure would only come with a Northamptonshire-style collapse. Only now the whole sector is poised on the brink of financial calamity, and it seems a s114 could be a one-way ticket out of existence.
Since the dawn of devolution, it seemed like further reorganisation was an inevitability, but be careful what you wish for. Those shouting the loudest sometimes forget: shifting to unitary structures is not a takeover; it is scrapping everything and starting again.
But when it comes to timing, it’s not just the fiscal peril or the rise of devolution. This is a Conservative government that broke down the red wall, the temptation to create a raft of new blue unitaries may be well worth the risk of offending a few foot soldiers – particularly now elections are fought out on social media as much as they are on the ground.
All this, however, is the wrong exam question. As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, there are huge challenges ahead. We have had the health crisis, we are just at the beginning of an economic crisis, there is an on-going environmental crisis and we could – with voices shouting louder about inequality – start to see an emerging social crisis.
Local government lies at the heart of multiple emergencies, and fiddling with structures alone is not going to be enough. We need a new system of modern public services, joined up at a local level, autonomous and democratically accountable and fully funded. We need a compassionate, workable and affordable way to look after our elderly and vulnerable, a strong solution for economic growth an education and skills offer for everyone.
Local government needs a reset. Reorganisation may be a small part of the answer, but it is not a silver bullet. Not even if it is fired from a pearl-handled revolver.