Local government reorganisation in Northamptonshire

Local politicians in Northamptonshire have been in a state of excitement in the past few weeks. This isn’t because they’ve all now set their budgets for 2016-17, but because they’ve caught a classic bout of reorganisation fever.  

This situation has largely come about because of the perilous state of finances at Northamptonshire County Council, but the announcement by the Oxfordshire districts to seek to establish four unitary authorities which would include the district of South Northamptonshire , effectively abolishing Oxfordshire County Council, has accelerated the debate. These are interesting times for politicians, but does it really resonate with the people that elect them?

None of this would be possible without Section 15 of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which empowers the Secretary of State to reorganise local government without recourse to consultation or primary legislation. Whilst it may appear that councils or MPs in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire are leading the case for reorganisation, they have been prompted to do so following encouragement from the Department for Communities and Local Government. So, this “local call” for reorganisation starts to look and feel far more like a top down process. 

I’ve held off in writing about this until I left the employment of one of the affected districts. Not because I know anything more than anyone else, but as someone who operates close to politicians and senior officers, it would not have been appropriate to comment publicly.

It feels to me like reorganisation is inevitable. Some are more up for it than others, but it will happen. Most politicians and senior officers will admit to this privately, but there is a process to be seen to be going through. It all feels a bit contrived as the Secretary of State will ultimately make the decision, not the councillors receiving reports from organisations that they have commissioned to produce recommendations justifying the continued existence of one authority against the amalgamation of others. 

Northamptonshire doesn’t have a natural vehicle for devolution. It is politically part of the East Midlands, but looks in various directions for different things. In some ways it is aligned to Cambrigeshire, in others to Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes. My gut feeling is that the area for South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership will become the model for devolution, but this doesn’t resolve the reorganisation conundrum in Northamptonshire.

I suspect we will see a North Northamptonshire Council, comprising the existing areas of Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough. This is a natural geographical fit for the north and east of the county, which is already used for strategic planning and housing delivery. What lies in store for the remainder of the county is less clear. Northampton BC has indicated that it wishes to be a unitary authority, but it is probably too small to be a unitary by itself. An alignment with Daventry seems to be inevitable to boost the population figure required. The known unknown at the minute is the fate of South Northamptonshire. Will it go with Cherwell as proposed or will it be sucked back into a unitary arrangement with Daventry and Northampton? 

This change will happen though. I expect a decision to be made by the end of this calendar year and announcement made to cancel next year’s county council election. I suspect that arrangements will be made for shadow unitary councils to come into existence with elections in 2018 and then for the current local government structure in Northamptonshire to be abolished with effect from 1 April 2019. Beyond consultation in the studies commissioned by the county council and the district/borough councils, I don’t imagine the public will get a say on this – the Secretary of State will do what he is enabled by law to do.

I may be wrong, but there is a whiff in the air, reorganisation is on its way.

ADSO Conference 2015

The themes of this year’s conference of the Association of Democratic Services Officers were Progress, Powers, Politics and Performance. In the context of city deals, devolution of powers and ever changing governance arrangements, this was an ideal opportunity for those who best understand local governance to share their experiences and reflect on good practice. 

I don’t intend to repeat everything that was presented or discussed at Conference, but rather to reflect on what we can do going forward. All too often do we attend conferences or workshops and come away enthused, but what do we really do differently?

It seems pointless to highlight that local government is changing, it always is in a state of change. The pace of change has gathered significant momentum since the election. Whilst the implications of the Spending Review are only just beginning to be understood, the Secretary of State’s recent announcement that devolution is “the only game in town” suggests that changes will continue to be pushed by the centre and new powers accepted by local government. My view here, stated during the Panel discussion on Thursday, is that local government reorganisation is inevitable. This was further reinforced during James Doble’s excellent workshop on combined authorities.

If we are redesigning local democracy and governance, surely the public, the electorate, will be involved in this process? The Cities and Devolution Bill doesn’t provide for it and local politicians and central government seem to be preoccupied with talking about funding behind closed doors. This is not healthy for the beginning of what will eventually result in a fundamental change of a local democratic decision making and oversight, to say nothing of local authority boundaries. 

Tony Bovaird provided an excellent overview of co-production, where some councils are already working with the public or service users to design, commission and evaluate services. Whilst Tony admitted that more research was required, the evidence to date implies that there is huge potential for improving services and accountability, whilst achieving significant savings. I was particularly interested in the insight that we could use to redesign local democracy in the context of co-production and devolution. The #NotWestminster gang will giving thought to this and many other areas in February 2016. Do please get involved with #NotWestminster if you’re passionate about local democracy.

In this era of budgetary restraint and austerity, focus has to continue on providing services that people want in the most efficient way that they want them. Democratic Services, Governance Services Committee and Member Services, whatever it is called in your area, has to add value. With changes brought about through devolution and digitisation, this is an exciting time. There is plenty to do, so let’s make sure we’re part of it as the navigators of the local political space.

Finally, all of us in the association owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who volunteer their time on the Board and organise the conference. It was fantastic, getting better and better with each year. I think we should be proud of how ADSO has grown since 2009, recognise what has been achieved and continue to develop as the premier association for governance and local democracy professionals.

Reflections on 7 May 2015

The outcome of the general election on 7 May 2015 surprised many experts and self-appointed experts with a victory under the first-past-the-post electoral system for the Conservative Party, which gave it a majority in the House of Commons. Beyond the confines of Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster, the Conservative Party made significant gains in the local elections contested in many areas on the same day. Whilst I do not doubt there are many fine candidates for that party (as well as in other parties, not forgetting independent candidates too), I do wonder how many of them would have been elected had the local election been contested separately from the general election. I have no doubt that the political landscape of local government may have looked somewhat different if the election had been held today rather than on 7 May.

 

I am Deputy Returning Officer for my local authority area and it was quite apparent to me that the general election had captured the imagination of the electorate. Examples of the primacy of the parliamentary election in the electorate’s mind filled my inbox and those of my colleagues on a daily basis in the days and weeks of the campaign:

 

I’ve not received my postal vote for the general election. I’ve had my one for the council, but that’s not important …. I want to vote for the Prime Minister.

 

Everyone is entitled to vote for whoever they wish and for whatever reasons they may have. The lack of awareness or understanding by the electorate in respect of the level of government that impacts the most on their daily lives should be a concern for us all.

 

The outcome of the election for local government has focused on the financial implications of ongoing austerity during the life of the parliament. Indeed, the Local Government Chronicle and the Municipal Journal have invited Chief Executives and the brightest from local government think tanks to reflect on what this will mean. An equally important challenge for local government during this period will be to address engagement and participation in local democracy beyond how many folks vote. The challenges ahead can only be met with redesign of the approaches that councillors, local authorities and others with an interest in the way that local democracy works. It will not be sufficient to carry on in the same vein.

 

The general election and the Scottish Independence Referendum showed that the electorate is engaged when policies or issues that effect them are up for debate. Local government has to grasp this and take the debate out of the town hall and to the people. Where the public are not engaged, there remains a duty to make the decision-making process open and transparent and this can be extended beyond the publication of agendas, reports and minutes through effective use of technology … not even new technology!

 

I expect local government to look very different by the end of the current Parliament, but the sector needs to focus on taking charge of its own future and not be dictated to by Westminster.

 

 

Election Time … 5 minutes for Local Democracy

Today’s news has been dominated by the dissolution of the Westminster parliament and the forthcoming general election. Yet this is not news. The starter’s pistol on the election for the UK parliament was effectively fired the morning after the Scottish independence referendum, so the electorate has long been saturated within national politicians berating their opponents.

The BBC News website won’t tell you that today was the last date on which Returning Officers for hundreds of local authorities and parish councils had to publish the local Notice of Election. My authority published on 23 March because I convinced my Returning Officer of the value of giving some profile to local democracy before the inevitable prioritisation of the parliamentary election.

This is an important time to test the enthusiasm generated on 7 February this year in Huddersfield #NotWestminster. In the workshop that Carl Whistlecraft and I ran, there was a clear desire from participants to see more information on candidates, agents and transparency in the entirety of the electoral process. Now is the time to trial the digital tools to enhance the local democratic process. 

This evening on Twitter there have been a number of conversations about livestreaming key elements of the local electoral process. This has to go far beyond tweeting links to statutory notices or reminding the public to register to vote by 20 April, but there should also be great care not to bombard voters with every minutiae of the election. Voters need information to help them make their decision, they don’t need to see the Returning Officer surrounded by empty ballot boxes imploring them to cast their vote.

The key questions for the voter are:

  • How and where can I vote?
  • Who can I vote for?
  • Why should I vote for them?

Any local democracy content must provide the voter with information to answer these questions. This information is already available but in a disparate way across local authorities, candidates and parties and local media. It will be interesting to see what progress is made at these local elections to bring local democratic content altogether in one place  when the spotlight is likely to be on the parliamentary election. 

Antidote to Sir Humphrey

Welcome to this blog. I’ve not written a blog for a number of years since the now forgotten ‘Overview and Scrutiny at Newcastle-under-Lyme’ reached its zenith of twenty readers. So, this is my second attempt at blogging about local democracy. 

Why local democracy?

I spend most of my time supporting local democracy. At least that is what my job title would imply. I work for a small district council and I’m responsible for

  • the administration of elections (making sure you get your postal vote or can go to a polling station), 
  • electoral registration (making sure you are eligible to vote), and 
  • overseeing the decision making process (making sure that decisions are transparent, sound and subject to scrutiny by you).

That represents the bulk of what I do, which makes me an enabler of local democracy.

I attended the brilliant ‘Local Democracy for Everyone’ event in Huddersfield on Saturday, which brought together likeminded individuals with enthusiasm and passion for building robust local democracy. Check out #NotWestminster to get more detail on the discussions throughout the day. 

The key message I’ve taken away from the event is that local democracy is not about structures and rules, which preoccupies electoral administrators and committee clerks across the land, but it is something more dynamic and less rigid. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the perception that a little more than 50% of electors marking a ballot paper annually would represent healthy local democracy is mistake. Elections are a form of participation, but democracy doesn’t end there. 

As a starting point, strong local democracy has to be based on a culture that encourages engagement beyond the ballot box. I will be blogging more about this in the future. 

#NotWestminster is not the conclusion of the conversation. It will be seen as important stage in the development of ideas that bring together the potential of technology, the possibilities of democracy and the importance of the local dimension – an antidote to the Whitehall knows best attitude of the past century.