Friday, 22 October 2010
Localism: Politics and Management Collide
Three currently Tory led West London Councils are considering merging services. This sort of thing has happened before in small local Districts, but never with authorities of such size. Collectively, they serve a population of getting on for 600,000 people. The three are already merging their children's services departments - aka education and social care for kids - and now they seem to want to go further and bring together their environmental health and corporate services. Savings of £50m-£100m are being claimed as possible, though I suspect this is more total Bollix than Total Place.
This stands somewhat in contradiction to any political narrative based on the 'localism and devolution of powers' theme aka the Big Society. Flippy Rick has covered this general subject more than once and, at a general level, I'm more on board with his entertainingly-jaundiced managerial eye for all the things that can wrong with either localising or centralising initiatives than absolutely convinced that Bigger is always Better. Nonetheless, I would concede that it is not inherently impossible that savings can be made through economies of scale in various areas.
What's interesting here of course is that two of the councils - Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea - are solid true blue Tory heartlands but the third, Hammersmith and Fulham, swings back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives every few years. Conventionally, it has generally been considered that electing a Council of a different stripe might, just might, mean that something changed. But if your Council is locked into long term contracts to jointly employ staff with other bodies who deliver an integrated service - whoops, sorry, to offer a common package of consumer choices (sic) - exactly how possible is this going to be? Doesn't it threaten to reduce the role of Councillors to funny people who shout at each other in the Council Chamber for no readily identifiable reason while the slick professionals get on with their terribly efficient way of doing stuff?
Now, let's be clear, I'm not coming over all dewy eyed and 'Heimat' in contemplating any of the existing London Boroughs. Most of them have existed in their current form for less than 2 generations and few command any real deep seated affection from their populations. I've never considered myself a 'Lambethian' for instance and I'd rather snigger at anyone who did. It would be like feeling patriotic about one's Water Company.
But the traditional deal is that, every generation or two since the late 19th Century, central government sets up a commission to look at all this and take soundings and proposes new boundaries - this may often take account of appropriateness of scale but also is driven by politics and community identity. What these West London Councils are seemingly proposing is very different from that - they're creating a permanent Tory controlled Local State with default Tory policies hard wired into their key services. It's management trumping politics.
And it's wrong.