10 Downing Street News

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Nine new unitaries announced

It appears the uncertainty has finally come to an end.

A total of 3.5 million people will see the end of two-tier governance in their area in the biggest shake-up of council boundaries since the mid-1990s.

When then local government minister David Miliband announced in LGC two years’ ago that he was contemplating redrawing council boundaries, most people immediately realised what he had unleashed.

Local relationships collapsed as districts and counties fought for survival. But restructuring enthusiasts insisted the efficiency gains resulting from reorganisation would make the saga worthwhile.

The battle has had many subplots. Districts such as Ipswich, Norwich and Oxford thought they were being offered an opportunity to break free from oppressive counties whose rural focus held back their economic development and local identity.

Counties such as Northumberland, Somerset and Cornwall felt they had a chance to provide more efficient local leadership – although their opponents said they were too big to truly represent local needs.

And then the Treasury got involved, making it clear that it would seek to restrict the number of councils allowed to proceed. The financial risk involved was making then chancellor Gordon Brown uneasy and the Department for Communities & Local Government was under pressure to scale back its original aspirations.

The final announcement constitutes a compromise between the views expressed by the county and district lobbies and the Treasury.

The hotchpotch of new boundaries ensuing marks no clear victory for the lobbies that backed either larger or smaller councils. While the figure of nine is slightly higher than the Treasury would have preferred, it certainly constitutes a less dramatic overhaul of boundaries than Mr Miliband envisaged.

One thing is certain. All councils, whether directly affected by today’s announcement or not, face continuing pressure to improve efficiency. Radical new working arrangements are required across the board – and the unitary council debate will not disappear in remaining two-tier areas. So perhaps the uncertainty has not entirely come to an end, after all.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Flood blogging takes off!

Yesterday the BBC contacted LGC with a view to interviewing me about the blog I wrote yesterday on flooding. This is now available for anyone to listen to via podcast on the BBC's Pods & Blogs website.

Interestingly, the Beeb also picked up on Cheltenham BC's use of blogging to keep local people up to date about what has been happening with the floods in the local area. What a great idea, and they are doing a great job - blogging every few hours on updates about where to get bottled water from, how the floods are affecting local events. I assume of course local people have power to they can surf the 'net! I have added the blog to the editor's picks.

There's also a link to the below video of how the town centre has been affected by flooding, which really brings it home how such areas are being affected to those of us like myself who are sitting on a dry hill in north London.

Monday, 23 July 2007

And with the floods come...all the same debates

In a former life I was a civil engineer, as my first journalism job was for a civil engineering magazine. One of my specialisms was flooding, and I was often sent out to report on various significant floods that happened from 2000 onwards. This meant I spoke frequently to the Environment Agency, engineering firms who built and maintained defences, and councils who were at the heart of emergency planning.

The issues that they talked about; problems with building too many homes on floodplains, the need for better flood early warning systems, changing climates, the lack of investment in flood defences, and the need for better drainage (sustainable urban drainage was all the rage then), are exactly the same which now appear to be making the news this week.

It makes me wonder: how far have we really progressed?

Surely the debate we should be having over and above all of this is, how prepared are we culturally - if indeed this flooding is an effect of climate change - to accept and adapt to our changing weather?

Adaptation and mitigation are two different prongs to coping with climate change, and the wisest councils are looking at both. But how well are councils and central government leading a mirror debate with their communities on the wider impacts? That is, do their residents accept that in the coming years they must also adapt their lives and decisions to cope with climate change?

At the moment the idea of living in an area at significant risk of flooding would for many people be a completely unacceptable concept. Understandably so - I've been to enough flooded homes to know it is far from pleasant. But if flooding is to become a common feature for some areas and particularly the more southern areas where homes are already under pressure some residents may have to learn to live with it or accept they must leave some areas entirely.

But are people prepared to live in a floodplain, perhaps in an cheaper but adapted house - houses on stilts are actually being designed already for some areas - than miles away from a conurbation in a house which is risk-free? And how prepared are those who live by the coast to accept that one day their home could be totally submerged, and for the government to shell out millions for a flood defence system to save but a clutch of homes is just not the best use of tax payers money?

Already some homes are built with an expectation of floods - main living areas are on the first floor, and electric plugs are fitted halfway up the wall. But are people prepared to wash down their ground floors every few months in the same way they might wash their car?

The debate needs to move on and it must involve residents, or in five years time we'll still be talking about the cost of flood defence rather than the real issue for debate; that climate change looks as if it's swiftly moved from hazy concept to muddy, unpleasant reality.

Nina Lovelace, acting editor

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Housing; Can local government build with Brown's bricks?

When it comes to identifying subjects of great British conversations, housing probably comes a close second to the weather in terms of its ability to prompt the normally rational to become suddenly over-emotional.

Whether it is the challenge to get decent social housing or the frantic leap to get onto the private housing ladder, an individual's right to a decent home appears to be intrinsically linked to their sense of how 'fairly' they are treated by those in power.

The suggestion that councils are to get powers and responsibilities to build tens of thousands of social houses a year will also undoubtedly raise emotions in the town hall. For many, this is a great opportunity to better place-shape, should they also get the right financial tools to help them deliver.

But after having spent so long unable to take the initiative in the way the housing green paper will promise, are councils prepared? Remember the social catastrophes that resulted from the design horrors that came with the last major housing expansion in the Sixties.

Councils face growing pressures from an aging population and new requirements to tackle climate change. This means the social homes of the future can't just be glass and steel. They must also be linked to proper infrastructure, energy efficient, and built in the knowledge that increasing numbers of residents are likely to have limited or decreasing mobility.

Do councils have the planning expertise or capacity? Will political pressure see developments pushed through too quickly? Furthermore, although they will be expected to work closely with housing associations, are these partnerships geared up to deliver?

A recent Young Foundation report found these relationships to be “scattershot and too often weak”. No one could have anything but praise should Gordon Brown leave a legacy of truly sustainable, affordable housing. But without the right checks and balances, he risks delivering a raft of homes in which no one actually wants to live.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Regional ministers will not upset 'effective' partnerships

The latest we are hearing on the sub-national review is that it won't be out on Wednesday as we originally though but maybe later this week. Either way it's not far off and could significantly add to the jigsaw that will show us what place government has for local government in its future devolutionary world. It could be the nail in local government's devolutionary coffin, of course. There is palpable fear out there that these many announcements coming from No. 10 are offering devolution to regions and neighbourhoods only.

One of the regional ministers, Liam Byrne, who represents the West Midlands, spoke today with LGC about these new posts. He told us, which you can read more about in Thursday's magazine, that the new roles are not expected to mess with 'effective' local partnerships which are already working to boost local economies and facilitate better planning across boundaries. These might be city regions or councils already working on multi-area agreements.

Reading between his lines then, this means that regional ministers could however quite easily end up messing about with regional bodies which aren't cutting the mustard. Interestingly the Centre for Cities has just brought out a new report, Two Track Cities, examining exactly which cities aren't really delivering on their potential in terms of key economic indicators such as jobs and those that are.

If we put two and two together from this and all those other north/south divide reports out there we might be able to figure out which areas might have the busiest regional ministers as a result. That is indeed assuming they will have enough time off their days jobs to do regions justice. Oh yes, still no word on what might happen to regional assemblies.

Added by Nina Lovelace

Friday, 6 July 2007

Conservatives announce 'regional' ministers

The Conservatives have also just annouced their own version of 'regional' ministers for England, although they do not exactly mirror those which were recently annouced by government. They are:

  • Alan Duncan for Tyneside
  • George Osborne for Manchester
  • William Hague represents the Leeds/Bradford area and will have and overall responsibility for the North
  • Caroline Spelman for Coventry
  • Andrew Mitchell for Birmingham
  • Francis Maude for the Black Country
  • Andrew Lansley for Nottingham
  • Dominic Grieve for Leicester
  • Cheryl Gillan for Cardiff
  • David Mundell for Glasgow
  • Chris Grayling for Liverpool
  • Stephen O'Brien for Stoke
  • And Jacqui Lait for London

Further announcements regarding the north-east and south-west will apparently be made over the summer. As yet no one has been appointed for any area in the south east.

It in interesting that the Tories have gone much more for a city-based focus, and many unsurprisingly in the north, whereas the government ministers are most certainly based on the nine regions.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

LGA conference - councillors shut out?

Hazel Blears' imminent speech in which she will announce ten participatory budgeting pilots, is according to the Local Government Association at least, rather a non-story. Several councils have already been doing pilots around this so it's not really new.

The more interesting issue here is to what extent government wants councillors to get involved in its participatory budgeting vision. The LGA's ideal is that 'frontline' councillors are given the funds but then consult with communities. It appears the government's ideal is that more final decision-making lies more in peoples' hands, and that they vote on where to spend the money.

There is obviously a difference in the power balance depending on which model you go with. Putting too much power in people's hands obviously throws up scrutiny issues. There is the argument that people have power anyway by appointing a councillor in the first place to make the decisions for them.

This is another announcement from Brown's new government which appears interesting but, when taken with the recent regional news, adds to the murk about where central government thinks local governent should fit into the devolutionary future. Will it end up getting the short end of the stick whereas communities and regions walk away empowered?

Added by Nina Lovelace live from conference