Announcements this week suggest that only three council re-organisation bids are likely to progress in the foreseeable future. Cumbria, Somerset and North Yorkshire have a strong enough consensus to be able to proceed. The many others – including some that arguably look to have a stronger case, but also stronger dissenting voices – now appear less likely. Informal intelligence suggests they are being dropped for more than the short term. Of course, things may well change again.
While plenty of people were hoping for comprehensive country-wide change, it is easy to see why this would be politically difficult at the moment. While I don’t want to pick apart what the right decision would be, I would like to reflect on the impact the discussion has had on upper tier council chief executives. (I’m conscious that it also had a huge impact on many others, including district council officers, politicians at all levels, Whitehall officials, and many others – including us! But my focus today is Chiefs, as we are working with several of them in areas that were due to be affected).
I asked around to find out how much of their time is being taken up by local government reorganisation/devolution, and was surprised to hear that the average was three days per week. When multiplied by the number of council areas impacted, our calculation is this: that the group of people leading £100 billion of crucial public services through the most turbulent and arguably important time in living memory have spent over 1,000 days on this agenda alone!
I’m not saying that time spent on this has been wasted. The future structure and organisation of local government will always remain a key issue, and the groundwork has been laid for next time it comes back on the agenda. Even if no direct change results from it, relationships will have been strengthened and other shared priorities uncovered.
I do think though that it is a reminder of what a crucial and multi-faceted role Chief Executives and other senior leaders in councils play in managing complex systems, and how challenging it is to prioritise the many aspects of maintaining resilience and transforming organisations and systems. That only strengthens my resolve and excitement to keep working with you!