The stock-take of local government by David Miliband, Minister of Communities and Local Government, is prompting discussion on re-shaping the structure of councils in the English counties. The stock-take has revealed relationship issues between the county and district councils, inconsistencies in the way local councillors represent electors and wide variations in administration costs.As the focus moves towards neighbourhoods the allocation of responsibility between county, district, town and parish councils is being challenged. District councils are too small to be strategic and yet too big to be local. An alternative to the current structure may be to give strategic responsibility to the county council with much of the service delivery handled at the local neighbourhood level. Bottom-up accountability is also being explored and this could result in a new role for ward councillors.
The current division of responsibilities does not foster joined-up working. The county councils are responsible for social service, but district councils look after housing. A District council deals with town planning, the county council handles transport planning.
There is a wide variation in administrative costs. District councils spend about 30% of costs on administration, while county councils spend about 4%. A re-structuring would produce significant efficiency gains, but these would have to be off-set against the cost involved in a re-organisation.
Sir Michael Lyons is to publish a series of discussion papers on the functions of local government in the Spring. And there are important changes being discussed in health and the police. Any change in local government structure will have to be consistent with those reforms. A White Paper on the future of local government will be published in mid 2006.