Local authorities in England and Wales are expecting a period of considerable change in the way they operate. In England, devolution at a regional level is continuing apace. Combined authorities are in place and elections will take place on 4 May 2017 for the first elected mayors to lead the combined authorities for:
- Cambridgeshire and Peterborough
- Greater Manchester
- Liverpool City Region
- Tees Valley
- West Midlands
- West of England
In Wales, the Welsh Government has published a White Paper, setting out proposals for local government reform and a Bill is expected to be published after this year’s local government elections. The Welsh Government is proposing a greater emphasis on joint working, with mandatory regional working on some functions, flexibility for the Welsh Ministers to require other functions to be undertaken regionally, and scope for local authorities to propose voluntary mergers.
Elsewhere, individual local authorities have been looking into reorganisation for their areas. In Oxfordshire for example, proposals have been developed for the establishment of a new unitary authority. At another tier of local government, the Neighbourhood and Planning Bill prompted the National Association of Local Councils to call for the creation of parish councils throughout England, as its chairman said that this would accelerate neighbourhood planning, get more neighbourhood plans in place and put more people in control of their areas.
Clearly then there is potential for a local government landscape to emerge which is very different from the one which we have been used to. The experience of previous reorganisations and other changes in the public sector tells us that local authorities should always be prepared for the prospect of change. Yet, some things remain constant. Local authorities will always have a role in serving the needs of their communities. They will always be public bodies, required to act within their powers, which includes exercising those powers reasonably. They will always have pervasive duties with which they will need to comply when discharging their functions.
In this context, it may be helpful to consider the possible future shape of the local government sector in the United Kingdom over the next few years and how local authorities can prepare for this. Characteristics of local authorities of the future are likely to include:
- New roles for local authorities within their regions and an increased focus on regional working. Whilst individual councils will continue to exist – albeit that some may be abolished or merged as a result of arrangements agreed for particular areas – their involvement in particular functions in their regions will change. In some circumstances, formal governance arrangements would require local authorities to take on a particular role and to work in a particular way. Those local authorities in England which are members of combined authorities will need to participate in accordance with the constitutions set out in the relevant orders which establish the authorities. They will need to work with other members of the combined authorities to enable the combined authorities to discharge effectively the functions for which they are responsible. In Wales, the exact details of the formal arrangements for regional working in the future are not yet known but more details are likely to emerge when the Welsh Government publishes information on responses to its White Paper, Reforming Local Government: Resilient and Renewed and in due course publishes a Bill to take forward its proposals. The Welsh Government has suggested in its White Paper that an appropriate form of regional governance would be a strengthened joint committee.
Even where local authorities are not obliged to work on a regional basis, for example to comply with statutory requirements or with Government expectations, or with conditions imposed by funders, they may find that working with other local authorities helps them to deliver services effectively. Many local authorities operate shared services and find that this can be a useful way of making effective use of the resources and skills of all the authorities involved in such an arrangement. This will be a useful option for local authorities to consider as they strive to deliver services with limited resources.
- Appropriate engagement with the citizens whom they serve. Local authorities need to ensure that their decisions and actions are transparent and accessible to the people whom they represent and serve. From time to time, the UK Government or the Welsh Government may seek to amend relevant legislation to reflect the fact that methods of communication and consequently expectations of citizens as to how they should have access to the decisions of their local authority. For example, in England, whilst the Local Government Act 1972 has long provided for the public to have access to local meetings, amendments made by the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 recognise the prevalence of social media by allowing people to use any communication method, including the internet, to share their reports of local authority meetings. Legislation relating to executive meetings has been similarly amended. In Wales, the Welsh Government’s White Paper proposes that local authorities should be required to produce strategies explaining how the public can understand how decisions are made and how they can participate in the process. Many local authorities already broadcast their meetings. The Welsh Government proposes to make this a statutory requirement and to require local authorities to attend meetings remotely.
- Service delivery according to what is most appropriate for the circumstances. In recent years, local authorities have used a range of different arrangements for service delivery. Factors which have prompted local authorities to consider this have included a need to make savings, a wish to review the local authority’s role, interest in stimulating community engagement, a wish to explore ways of improving the quality of services. Sometimes a local authority in England has been obliged to consider changes to its services as a result of receiving an expression of interest from a body which has the right under section 81 of the Localism Act 2011 to express interest in providing or assisting in providing those services (the community right to challenge). These factors may lead a local authority to consider various models of service delivery, as well as the traditional model of its own in-house delivery. These include engaging external contractors to provide services and establishing corporate entities or other structures.
A local authority’s attention to service delivery should also include considering new ways of delivering services, in order to find the most appropriate. For example, developments in technology may allow a local authority to make efficient use of resources whilst offering service users convenient ways of communicating with their local authority. For example, the London Borough of Enfield has introduced an artificial intelligence system, known as Amelia, in which a virtual agent helps people find information and complete standard applications online. In an environment where local authorities face strong pressure from all the demands on their resources and where many members of the public have access to a range of technology, the need for local authorities to consider such ways of working may increase. However, they will need to take account of those people who do not have access to the relevant technology and will need to ensure that any arrangements they make are non-discriminatory and compliant with the public sector equality duty.
It can be seen then that in the future local authorities are likely to face the prospect of changes in their roles and in the way they work. In order to ensure that they put their communities in the best position to benefit from any such changes, they should ensure they remain up to date with any proposed or actual developments in local government, assess any implications for their authorities and their areas. They should then prepare appropriately and when appropriate take proactive action to make changes to their own arrangements if it is considered that this will be in the interest of the people whom they serve.
If you have any issues or queries regarding the above, please contact a member of our Central, Devolved and Local Government Team. LOCAL GOVERNMENT - EXPERTISE
This article was prepared for the Local Government Lawyer and published first on 20th April 2017.)