The Government has published devolution deals for four new areas in England, including the first ‘level 2’ deals, as well as a framework for ‘level 4’ devolution.
Two Private Members’ Bills have been presented to the House of Commons that seek the power to hold a referendum to divide an existing local authority area into two.
The second of these bills was published on 22 February 2022. It would allow a referendum to be held on establishing a new local authority, covering two or more parliamentary constituencies, if a petition was signed by 10% of the electors in each of the constituencies concerned.
The detailed provisions would be set out in regulations. The Bill would require the relevant Secretary of State to make those regulations within 90 days of the Bill receiving Royal Assent.
Both Bills are scheduled for second reading in the Commons on Friday 25 February 2022. As only one further Friday is available for the consideration of Private Members’ Bills this parliamentary session, it’s unlikely that either bill will be enacted as there will be little time available for their further stages. However, they raise the question of how, and whether, residents within a local authority area might split off an area to create a separate local authority.
How to ‘split’ authorities?
The current legal procedure for ‘splitting’ an existing local authority into two or more parts is in sections 8-10 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. This permits the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to review a local authority area. It may decide on “the constitution of a new local government area”. In doing so, the Boundary Commission consider “the need to secure effective and convenient local government” and “the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities”.
The relevant Secretary of State must decide whether to implement a change recommended by the Commission. There is no legal requirement for a referendum to approve a proposed change, and a petition or referendum can’t be used to require a change or a review to take place.
Has it happened before?
Since the comprehensive local government reforms in 1974, there is no example of a single council area in England being split in two to form two council areas.
During a period of local government restructuring in England in 1992-95, many district councils ceased to be part of the county council area they had been in and became ‘unitary authorities’ which perform the functions of county and district councils. There are examples of historic counties being recreated as unitary authorities (for instance, Herefordshire, Rutland). This took place within the context of wider changes and didn’t involve splitting a single area into two areas. There are also examples of small areas being moved between council areas (for instance, in Malvern Hills and York).
Government policy on local authority areas
The policy of successive Governments over the last 40 years has favoured merging local authority areas rather than splitting them. Governments in the 2010s and 2020s have supported the creation of unitary local authority areas covering large populations, on local demand. Current Government guidance proposes a minimum population of 300,000 for new unitary authorities (though this may vary based on local circumstances, as with the current reorganisation proposals in Cumbria: there, two new local authorities will be created with populations of around 250,000).
Government support for larger authorities has a long pedigree. Before the 1974 reforms, many more district councils existed in England. Part of the purpose of the 1974 reforms was to create fewer, larger local authorities, in the light of the Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1969. There have been periodic reductions in numbers since then, as shown in table 1. Since 1974, the numbers have been reduced by creating unitary authorities to replace district and county councils in many parts of England:
Table 1: Number of local authorities in England
An important question involved in ‘splitting’ an authority in two would be where the boundaries of the new authority run. Reviews of boundaries for parliamentary constituencies, unitary authorities, and wards often provoke strong local feelings. Both Bills currently before Parliament solely provides for creating new authorities from parliamentary constituency areas. However, these may not always match local preferences. Also, parliamentary constituencies must be similar to one another in population, and so do not always match local identities, or local council boundaries.
Is bigger better?
UK local authorities cover much bigger populations than their counterparts elsewhere. The average population of district councils, the lowest tier of government in England, is approximately 115,000. In many other states, the average population of the lowest tier of government is far smaller – though those local governments will often have very different responsibilities from their English counterparts.
Despite the figures in this table, the merger of small local authorities has been a common theme among most states in Europe over the last 50 years. The belief that larger local authorities are more efficient is not confined to the UK. This is despite international research on population size and local authority effectiveness showing, for the most part, little sustained evidence that larger local authorities are superior. More information is available in section 8 and appendix 3 of the Library briefing, Unitary local government.
About the author: Mark Sandford is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in local government and devolution in England.
This Commons Library briefing paper summarises the main developments regarding the process of devolution of powers to local government within England since 2014.
A briefing paper on the trailblazer devolution deals proposed for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands in March 2023.