On 2 May 2019, voters will go to the polls to elect councillors for 216 out of 343 local councils in England. The pattern of elections – which councils are holding them in 2019 and which are not – is largely due to historical accident. They include metropolitan districts in large urban areas such as Manchester, several dozen district councils, 30 unitary authorities, and mayoralties in Copeland, Mansfield, Middlesbrough, Bedford, Leicester,and the new North of Tyne Combined Authority. But historical accident also influences the geographical shape of council areas themselves – a matter that may rise up the political agenda given the focus on ‘place’ in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum.

This Insight examines how local boundaries are made and what considerations prompt mergers and restructuring.

Elections in new authorities

In 2019, some newly-formed authorities will hold their first elections after a merger. These are the district councils of West Somerset and Taunton; East Suffolk; and West Suffolk; and two new unitary authorities – Dorset, and ‘Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole’. Each of those restructures has its own story. West Somerset and Taunton Deane agreed to merge following West Somerset’s severe financial difficulties. East and West Suffolk’s creation followed years of joint working and shared services by their predecessor authorities. This was also true of the Dorset restructures, but these faced intense local opposition, in Christchurch in particular, culminating in a failed legal attempt to halt the merger.

Many of the elections taking place in May are ‘elections by thirds’. Councillors sit for four-year terms. One-third of councillors face re-election each year, and there are no elections in the fourth year. This system has been the norm in district councils since 1974.

Meanwhile, elections in the district councils in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire have been postponed in anticipation of a restructuring, with unitary authorities expected to come into being in April 2020.

What prompts a restructure?

The geographical areas of English local authorities have often emerged from decisions taken long ago, often for reasons that are less than clear today. The primary influence on them is the comprehensive restructuring of English local government in 1974.

The 1974 restructuring is unique in English history. It applied to the whole of England and Wales (except for London, which had been restructured in 1964). It also attempted to balance a number of explicit criteria for creating units of local government. These included:

  • The ‘pattern of living’ – where people travelled to for work and leisure, and the patterns of economic activity.
  • ‘Affective identity’ – the feeling of belonging to or identification with a particular place.
  • ‘Democracy’ – referring to the need for local authorities to be sufficiently small to be in touch with local issues.
  • Scale – the need for local authorities to be sufficiently large to achieve economies of scale, leading to better public services.

Since 1974, governments have presided over a number of mini-restructurings. Each one has featured a different balance between these five approaches. The most recent ones, in 2007-09 and the minor changes since 2017, have focused overwhelmingly on scale, efficiency, and value for money. This was to the almost total exclusion of either ‘affective identity’ or economic activity. This implies a policy perspective that regards local government as an effective means of providing local public services. Governments since 2010 have not actively promoted mergers; not wishing to be seen to invite disruption.

The ‘building blocks’ approach

Most changes to English council areas in recent decades have followed a ‘building blocks’ approach to restructuring. The units of local government established in 1974 have been merged into larger areas. Current Government policy follows this pattern, favouring the creation of unitary authorities covering 300,000 – 700,000 people, based on existing district and county areas.

This approach is convenient and simple, but it may have drawbacks, particularly in the context of recent attention being paid to ‘place-shaping’. This phrase denotes the idea that local authorities should be more than deliverers of public services: they should actively promote the ‘economic, cultural and physical well-being’ of their communities. The phrase originates from the 2007 Lyons Inquiry into Local Government, but the idea is at least fifty years old. The idea has achieved profile during the 2010s in the context of the Government’s ‘devolution deals’ policy, the progress towards Local Industrial Strategies, and renewed emphasis on joining up public services.

Attachment to local identity

The ‘building blocks’ approach downplays strong local preferences concerning council geographies. Recent polling evidence suggests that attachment to a local area within England is a commonplace phenomenon. However, the idea of local ‘identity’ has historically gained little traction in England. The conventional wisdom has been that attachment to local government areas is weak; and local authority elections rarely attract turnouts above 45%. But each round of restructuring and boundary changes since 1974 has generated considerable local disquiet, including several examples of legal action. Most recently, Christchurch Borough Council held a referendum on its proposed abolition, which was opposed by 84% to 16% on a turnout of 53%. The question of where local boundaries run may not be a purely technical, administrative matter for many people.

A further comprehensive boundary review would inevitably be disruptive for councils. And it might not be easy to arrive at a consensual outcome. The ‘criteria’ identified above often point in different directions, and they may be addressed by different means. For instance, Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities meet a perceived need for administrative units corresponding to patterns of economic activity. Likewise, a need to bolster affective identity and democracy could trigger a further resurgence in the creation, powers and profile of parish and town councils. This has been visible in Dorset, where town councils are being created in Weymouth and Christchurch following the demise of their borough councils.

The Commons Library is soon to publish a study of the issues surrounding local authority boundaries in England.

Further reading

About the author: Mark Sandford specialises in local government and devolution in England at the House of Commons Library.