In October 2020, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, invited councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset to submit proposals to create unitary authorities in those areas.

Unitary local authorities would replace multiple local authorities with a single local government in a given area.

This Insight explains the background to these invitations.

Local government structures in England

Many parts of England have both a county council and a district council. County councils run public services such as education, libraries, roads and social care, whilst district councils are responsible for matters such as waste, environment and housing. In other areas, a single ‘unitary’ council is responsible for all these services.

In 1974, a major reform established county and district councils for all areas of England and Wales. County councils run public services such as education, libraries, roads and social care, whilst district councils are responsible for matters such as waste, environment and housing.

Since then, in many areas these have been replaced with new ‘unitary’ authorities responsible for all these services, through a number of rounds of ‘restructuring’, most notably in 1992-95 and 2008-09.

Government policy

The 2010-15 Coalition Government was opposed to local government restructuring, but many UK governments before and since then have been more supportive. The trend in recent decades has been toward fewer, larger local authorities. The current Government has issued guidance on the criteria it will use to assess restructuring proposals in response to the recent invitations.

The legal process governing local authority restructuring is in sections 1-7 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. The final decision on a proposed restructure is made by the Secretary of State. A restructure does not require the affected councils to give formal consent.

There is also no requirement for the public to express their support for a change, via a referendum or other means, though advisory referendums have been held in the past.

County and district councils have different proposals

In Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and Somerset, each county council has expressed support for the creation of a unitary authority on the existing county boundaries. District councils in the area have begun work on alternative proposals for more than one unitary authority in each area affected. Any new unitary councils would be established in 2022 or 2023.

Unitary authorities have been mooted by councils in other areas, notably Lancashire and Lincolnshire, and also Warwickshire, Essex, Nottinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

The most recent unitary restructures took place in Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Northamptonshire. Elections to the new authorities in those areas are now scheduled for May 2021.

Why unitary local government?

A system of unitary local government would replace multiple political leaderships and senior officer teams, and thus multiple strategies and perspectives, with a single local government perspective. This could make local policy-making, service delivery and planning more efficient by reducing the number of organisational partners involved.

Commentators argue that few members of the public understand the division of responsibilities between county and district councils. PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ 2020 report on restructuring and scale noted the idea of the “inherent simplicity associated with operating a single organisation.”

Many advocates of unitary local government suggest it would enable public money to be saved. This argument has featured regularly in debates on local government restructuring for 30 to40 years.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimate that a move to unitary authorities on county boundaries in all two-tier areas in England would save approximately £2.9 billion over a five-year period. This equates to some £600 million per year – or £25 million per year per county area.

Similarly, EY estimated savings over a five-year period at £2.4 to £2.9 billion in 2016. Both of these reports were published by the County Councils Network. They include estimates for alternative patterns of reform, such as introducing two or three unitary authorities in each county area.

These figures take ‘transition costs’ into account. These are one-off costs of a restructuring taking place. Studies of previous restructuring processes suggest the level of savings indicated by these models is not necessarily achieved in practice.

International evidence

Many academic studies have focused on the effects of merging multiple local authorities into larger units. In summary, the balance of the research suggests that:

  • The evidence that larger authorities reliably achieve economies of scale is equivocal, both in the UK and elsewhere;
  • There is no automatic relationship between larger authorities (in terms of population size) and more effective services. Larger authorities do perform better in some service areas in some states, but studies have also found examples of poorer performance by very large authorities, and examples where no direct relationship can be identified;
  • There is some evidence that larger local authorities are less ‘democratically responsive’: that is, that they can be associated with reduced public satisfaction, reduced political participation, or lower electoral turnouts.

This doesn’t mean that any restructuring in the UK will necessarily cause any of these outcomes. Most academic studies focus on merging small local authorities rather than reducing the number of tiers of local authority.

Further reading

Unitary local government, November 2020, House of Commons Library

Local elections and boundary restructures in England, April 2019, House of Commons Library

About the author: Mark Sandford is a senior research analyst in the House of Commons Library.

Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

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