Local government devolution: shining a light on decisions around restructuring

31-08-2016

By Jo Pitt, Local Government Technical Manager, CIPFA

In the past there have been voices of concern raised about the devolution agenda and other interlinked local government changes around a perceived lacked of transparency. The Parliamentary Accounts Committee recently commented on a number of issues around transparency that they wanted to see addressed in their report ‘Cities and Local Growth’. 

It would seem that this request has not fallen on deaf ears. The recent release in August 2016 of Grant Thornton’s ‘Review of future options for local government in Oxfordshire’ is a publication that takes five different local government structures and considers which might be the most appropriate going forward. 

The review, which was commissioned in May by the County Council, asked Grant Thornton to assess the strength of proposals for unitary structures of local government put forward by the County Council and the City and district councils.

The report looks at five options (including a status quo) available in the area and appraised each option against the five evaluation criteria below:-

  • improve local service delivery and outcomes, particularly for the most vulnerable
  • delivering significant cost savings, improved value for money and long-term financial sustainability 
  • provide stronger and more accountable strategic and local leadership 
  • drive economic growth and meet the infrastructure challenge
  • improve engagement with communities and empowerment of local areas.

The options involving change all centred on the change from district to unitary:

  • four unitary authorities and a combined authority 
  • three unitary authorities and a combined authority
  • two unitary authorities and a combined
  • single unitary
  • status quo  
The winning option from the conclusion of the report was the single unitary authority but there was understandable recognition of the challenges faced with any transformation. From the findings single unitary offered the best chance of improved outcomes for residence, communities and business. 

However, it was not seen as the only option that offered savings in terms of service consolidation. In fact all four options were able to offer savings - but it was able to benefit from the greatest scales of economy. In reviewing the evidence on the impact on  infra-structure and the economy the findings pointed to the lack of joined up decision making with the current structure and felt that a  single unitary approach would offer greater cohesion and a stronger voice. They were also not convinced that small is better on local engagement, again supporting the larger single structure. 

Finally, the report concluded that the single unitary approach was also more effective than a combined authority when considering the strengths and weakness around leadership and accountability.

Whilst it is impossible to know what will happen in the future, having this type of review available for public consideration is a positive move. It plays its part in explaining a very complicated story. When combined with information, such as the work done by PWC for the city and district council and other stakeholder information provided by the Oxfordshire authorities, it must surely make the public feel more aware of the changing nature of local government and understand some of the reasons behind decisions. Let’s hope that those who read it feel the same. 

Discover more

  • Visit the Transformation Hub and our consultancy pages to find out more about how we can help you with devolution, shared services and restructuring organisations