One of our neighbours held a jubilee barbecue recently, and during the evening the conversation moved round to my elevation to the role of county councillor. Of course, everyone had a list of things that ‘the council’ should be doing, and weren’t; or shouldn’t, and were; or were, and were doing badly.
In Cumbria, we are so excited about local authorities that we actually have three tiers of them: Kendal Town Council; South Lakeland District Council; and Cumbria County Council, each with tax raising powers and different (but occasionally overlapping) responsibilities. It became a running joke at the barbecue that whenever an issue was raised, I would politely explain it was one of the other tiers that was responsible.
This situation is not only confusing for the public; even in my brief time on the council I have had a case where the legal teams in the two tiers have been debating whose responsibility it is to handle a particular issue. There is not doubt in my mind that the present situation does lead to additional cost to the taxpayer – democracy does not come cheaply.
With County Council elections due next year then, it was no great surprise to see the leader of the County Council calling for a cut in the number of councils. The leader of the District Council was quick to agree, and MP Tim Farron suggested bringing back the historic county of Westmorland.
Will it happen? I wouldn’t hold your breath. Critics will cite the costs of re-organisation (as if the status quo is cost-free – see for example Cumbria’s decision to build a new headquarters). But the big killer is that under the current regulations, any change would have to be agreed by all the councils involved. That’s a big ask.