“Local government reorganisation” isn’t a phrase to set the pulse racing. Indeed, for most of us it will be among the more sedate discussion topics. But it’s something everybody working in planning and infrastructure needs to start thinking about. Change across the shire counties is likely and it may be upon us sooner than we think.
Reorganisation has happened recently in some areas. Cornwall and Shropshire have been unitary since 2009 and Herefordshire has been since 1998. Last year, Dorset was reorganised into two new unitaries.
This ambition might have been something to be pursued in the medium term, except that the financial crisis in local government caused by Covid-19 might bring the debate forwards. If districts and counties start to go through the formal processes to declare that they’re running out of money and can’t balance the books, then a widespread reorganisation might come much sooner. Even if districts and boroughs defy expectations by surviving, the financial pressures on local government and stated policy goals might prompt Westminster to make changes anyway.
What happens then could have a profound impact on the way development is considered, scrutinised and enabled. That’s as true for strategic planning or small-scale local schemes. With the disappearance of districts, there will be wrangling over where power ends up and, as with all debates over local government, the politics of planning will be front and centre.
That means negotiations over what authority or structure retains power over the Local Plan or Core Strategy. How will a new planning committee work? Will there be several committees covering different areas of a new unitary area or one large committee? And will that make things more or less parochial? In areas where there’s a metro mayor, how will they sit alongside the new structure when things like transport and health need to be considered? On a more fundamental note, if new authorities are formed in a perilous financial climate, how will they properly resource the planning function alongside all the other demands they face?
The recent creation of a large new unitary authority in Buckinghamshire and two in Northamptonshire may offer some clues about the general direction, but there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Geographical differences, demographics and good old political bunfights are sure to feature. And when it comes to setting the boundaries for new councils, the government will certainly want to have a say.
Whatever the result, in a few years’ time promoters, planning consultants and landowners in the shire counties could be looking at a different structure. Considering the opportunities and risks associated with any changes should be put firmly on the agenda.
Max Wilkinson is a senior account manager at Camargue