Local boundaries in England: What is ‘place’?

In the last few years, a number of think-tanks have addressed the effects of Government policy on ‘place’. Concerns have centred around spatial variations in GDP across the UK, identifying public spending within a given area, and variations in productivity.

Think-tank reports have reflected the concerns of the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, including variations in productivity, innovation, and infrastructure investment, and the need to increase prosperity in ‘left-behind’ areas.* When addressing these issues, many have commented on the structures of sub-national governance in England.

Such reports frequently recommend devolving additional power, in the name of greater local accountability and capacity for ‘place-shaping’.** However, the reports almost universally shy away from defining the ‘places’ to which powers should be devolved.

This Insight will examine the conflicting views of what constitutes a ‘place’ and introduce new work taking place in this area by the House of Commons Library.

The ingredients of a ‘place’

The Redcliffe-Maud Commission of the late 1960s, and the subsequent restructuring of English local government in 1974, had the most decisive influence on today’s pattern of local administrative boundaries. The Commission undertook extensive research around local loyalties, public service efficiencies, and analysis of economic activity, seeking to achieve a single pattern of boundaries that would capture all of these debates. In contrast, think-tank reports in recent years have, for the most part, avoided proposing definitive local boundaries backed with analysis.

The 1974 restructuring of English local government, though, paid considerable attention to familiar county boundaries and large urban areas. Subsequent rounds of local government restructuring have, for the most part, used the changes in political boundaries in 1974 as ‘building blocks’. In 1986, the abolition of the six metropolitan counties and the Greater London Council took place whilst in 1992-95 and 2007-09, several dozen unitary authorities were created. These were based on counties, cities, and amalgamated district councils. A similar pattern appears underway at the time of writing, with change underway in Dorset and planned for Buckinghamshire.

Although restructuring has been regularly debated in English local government, it is never easy. Recent rounds of restructuring have attracted political disputes and judicial intervention. The rationales given for change have varied over time, with differing emphases given to local loyalties, economic patterns, efficiency, and scale. Current Government policy on local government restructuring emphasises that new unitary authorities should demonstrate scale, efficiency and local support – a “credible geography” with a population of 300,000 upwards – with no reference to functional areas or local “identity”.

Economic and emotional ties

The downplaying of local identity in recent years reflects, in part, that England has few clearly-defined regions or localities with a strong and distinct identity. At the same time, many of England’s county boundaries have existed in similar form for several hundred years; but they often bear little relation to modern patterns of economic activity. An alternative division of local areas can be achieved via various forms of ‘functional economic market area’ (FEMA). FEMAs are widely used for statistical purposes: they may be based on travel-to-work patterns, housing markets and house move patterns, retail or leisure patterns, or a combination of these. In short, they are based on ‘effective identity’, which derives from patterns of individuals’ daily economic activities.

Effective identity may or may not resemble patterns of ‘affective identity’ – where individuals display a felt loyalty to or affinity with a town, county or other area. Furthermore, effective identity may change over time, reflecting gradual changes in patterns of economic activity. Maps of FEMAs from the 1990s, for instance, show different boundaries and greater or lesser overall numbers of areas.

The possibility of amending administrative boundaries to take FEMAs into account is a recurring theme of the restructuring debate: metropolitan areas such as Greater London, Greater Manchester, and South and West Yorkshire owe their existence to it.

The idea of FEMAs played a substantial role in debates in the late 1960s. It also played a role in debates in the 2010s regarding local economic policy, specifically the formation of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in 2011. Many LEPs cut across county boundaries, and frequently overlap. However, there is some evidence that their boundary choices arose from local political alliances as much as any conception of FEMAs. The Government published a consultation in July 2018 seeking local proposals for an end to overlapping LEPs, citing accountability concerns as the amount of public money allocated by LEPs continues to grow.

Mapping

The House of Commons Library is working on a briefing paper that will compare a number of the existing patterns of boundaries via a series of maps. The visual information is intended to highlight the similarities and differences between boundaries used for different purposes in England; and to identify any boundaries that are less or more frequently used in England. The paper will also set out the recent history of boundary reform in England. Boundary issues form an implicit element of several recent policy initiatives and proposals, including:

  • Devolution of power to ‘metro-mayors’
  • Local economic policy-making, including the proposed Local Industrial Strategy and the future Shared Prosperity Fund
  • Debates over the appropriate scale of public service delivery, on the grounds of efficiency;
  • Joining up independent public bodies within an existing area – the idea of tackling ‘silo government’
  • Improving the local accountability of independent public bodies, via ‘local public accounts committees’ or similar bodies.

We hope this paper will provide a useful evidence base for this ongoing and contentious debate.

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

 

 * They include the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’s  City Growth Commission and Inclusive Growth Commission, the report of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s  Commission on Economic Justice, and the newly-launched UK 2070 Commission.

**Examples include ResPublica’s Devo 2.0: the case for counties; Reform’s Vive la devolution: devolved public services commissioning; and Localis’s The Making of an Industrial Strategy).