So far the lack of public interest in local government reorganisation is yet another reminder that while the public often care very much about key local services, they don’t care so much about the structure of local government. Having seen its central government grant cut massively, the coup de grace for many councils is now merger and abolition. The public so far are not much engaged, or enraged, and certainly no more than the 5% who claim to know a great deal about local government, which roughly equates to those either working for, or in a household where someone works for, a council.
Local government remains as ever more trusted than central government – although that isn’t a benchmark many might choose. Who now mourns Medina, Avon, Berkshire CC, Humberside, the Greater London Council and more? Efficiency and keeping council tax bills down will trump the number of people per councillor every time it seems. While people consistently support more local decision making in principle, this so far hasn’t led to a majority voting in local elections, or protesting at a steady centralisation of control of many local functions. And while devolution in principle is popular, whenever the English are offered a local authority with devolved tax raising powers they reject it.
John Banham, running one of England’s last reviews back in the 1990s, noted that a fully unitary solution for much of the country would commend all-party support in the House of Commons, but would cause ‘mayhem’ when implemented. Successive governments have tended to the unitary principle, topped out with elected mayors, and so far mayhem has yet to arrive. I expect local government’s endless ability to just ‘get on with it’ on instructions from Whitehall will continue.
Ben Page is chief executive of Ipsos MORI