Regime Change in Local Government | Xander West
The recent announcement of the East Midlands Mayoral Combined County Authority (or East Midlands MCCA for short) is another sin upon the pile Boris Johnson’s outgoing government has accumulated. Uniting Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, both centrally located within the Midlands and stretching nearly as far west as the West Midlands, the government envisions it as the model institution whereby devolution can extend to England’s remaining untainted counties by 2030. The grip of the present regime of local government (along with several before it) is cold, uncaring, stiflingly bureaucratic and, of principal importance to my sensibilities, ahistorical, hence this article shall argue for decisive change.
For most intents and purposes, the problematic regimes in English local government began with the Local Government Act 1972. In 1969, the Labour-endorsed Redcliffe-Maud Report had proposed a brash and radical option for reform, involving the abolition of all existing council structures and replacing them with a system of mostly unitary blobs under eight provincial councils. Instead, Edward Heath’s Conservatives chose the sensible and pragmatic option for reform, involving the abolition of all existing council structures and replacing them with a two-tier system of blobs called districts or boroughs under new counties which sometimes kept the shape of those which preceded them. It was simple, uniform and copied many of Lord Redcliffe-Maud’s proposed boundaries.
Although Thatcher’s government abolished metropolitan county councils in the 1980s, the first substantial shift in local government regimes occurred somewhat later. Through a commission created by the Local Government Act 1992, John Major’s government oversaw the first wave of unitary authorities to mutilate many counties and wholly dissolve Berkshire (I have no idea what Berkshire did wrong). This new regime was then replaced in the final days of his premiership by the Lieutenancies Act 1997. It effectively abolished counties altogether since it redefined the monarch’s representatives in counties, known as lord-lieutenants, to serve a geographically fixed set of them. As I have already demonstrated, the equivalent administrative units were meanwhile increasingly becoming untethered from any kind of rootedness. Some authorities still call themselves ‘county councils’ to this day, but such a label can relate to anything in the layer of entities above the level of district but below the combined authority. In one sense, the (understandable) retreat of the lord-lieutenants from being affected by changes to local government boundaries opened the floodgates to far more rapid and synthetic regime changes.
England avoided being split up into regional assemblies by Tony Blair after the North East devolution referendum fell flat in 2004, so the regime of slowly spreading unitary authorities as replacements to multi-district counties continued. In 2009, Bedfordshire and Cheshire were split up and several other counties were converted to single unitary authorities. However, Gordon Brown’s government thought up something new for the 2009 Budget: the Statutory City Region. The Manchester City Region Authority and Leeds City Region would pilot London-style devolution in pursuit of economic growth and sustainable development; this was original premise of the combined authority.
The Conservatives, always being the polar opposite to Labour, embraced combined authorities wholeheartedly. Thus, the (renamed) Greater Manchester Combined Authority was born in 2011 and another regime began. In 2012, the government held referenda on creating elected mayors in ten cities, using the framework kindly left by Blair in the Local Government Act 2000. The government of Blair’s self-proclaimed heir, David Cameron, wanted these positions to introduce more devolution in the name of localism. However, the people were not so keen, and only Bristol voted in favour of an elected mayor on the day.