Can the Scale of UK Sub-central Government Possibly Get Even Larger? You Bet It Can!

Mr. Chris Game

“Size and local democracy is often regarded as problematic”, suggests this session’s description. If the focus of one’s professional life in the UK is what is still laughingly called ‘local’ government, the “often” is redundant: it’s a fact of daily existence. Given this paper is seeking acceptance at a World Congress in Portugal, it would open with some ‘scene-setting’, situating in a European/OECD35 context the respective scales and financial/fiscal discretion of UK, Portuguese and other sub-central governments [UK: 391 municipalities and declining, average population 169,000 and rising; Portugal: 308 municipalities and stable, average population 33,000].

It is facile to say that, in matters of local government scale, general rules are hard to identify, even across Europe – but it’s true. Portugal’s post-1974 Carnation Revolution structure of 304 municipalities remains virtually unchanged, making it then and still among Europe's top ten largest-scale local government systems. Similarly, France (extremely), Austria, Switzerland and Spain have remained among the smallest-scale systems, while the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland and Greece have merged their systems significantly up the scale table.

The core of the paper would not, however, be comparative, but focused on various trends and current developments in UK sub-central government, which continues almost by the year to become ever less local – and, you could say, to resemble even less the sub-central systems of the EU countries it will possibly/probably/conceivably (or not) be leaving.

The paper would describe and illustrate the several different forces that have led, and continue to lead, to council mergers: a few imposed, following effective or threatening bankruptcy, others pressured in differing ways by central government, and some instigated by local governments themselves, sensing, like the immortal Bob Dylan, that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

The past few years, of the global financial crisis and successive national Governments’ policy responses, have exposed the double fallacy that ‘UK local governments are too big to (a) fail, and (b) get any bigger’ – and that, essentially, is what this paper would be about.