After six months at the frontline of the emergency response to COVID-19, the unique ability of councils to respond to the needs of local communities has never been more evident.
As we enter recovery, everyone agrees councils now need financial and organisational stability, the space to reflect on how to respond even more effectively to subsequent waves, and the opportunity to reflate local economies.
“Reorganisation supporters fail to recognise that much of the strength of our ‘messy’ system comes from its historical rooting in communities of place”
Everyone, that is, apart from Local Government Minister Simon Clarke MP, who astonishingly has chosen this time to instead inflict instability, confusion and distraction on councils by dusting off his department’s tired plans to ‘reorganise’ local government from the top down, powered by the usual dubious arguments that prioritise neatness, uniformity and sterility over local identity, sense of place, and genuine devolution.
The idea of reorganisation is superficially attractive, with the small carrot of possible future ‘efficiency gains’ looking delicious to councils that have been starved of resources for more than a decade. But even where it is not contested, council reorganisation demands a massive upfront investment of resources and, crucially, officer capacity.
Both are in such painfully short supply today that I can hardly think of a less opportune moment for ministers to demand councils switch their attention from handling a serious global pandemic to a pointless deckchair shuffle.
Reorganisation supporters fail to recognise that much of the strength of our ‘messy’ system comes from its historical rooting in communities of place, and underestimate both people’s attachment to local identity and the anger that will spark when it looks like their town or city will lose its ability to self-govern.
So I predict that Simon Clarke, when confronted by MPs, councillors, and even fellow ministers who are baffled at being told to waste scarce time, energy, and money on a reorganisation that won’t deliver efficiency benefits for several years, will either come to his senses or become a victim of a different ‘reorganisation’ of his own – the dreaded ministerial reshuffle.