Local government reorganisation in Cumbria: fast, furious and utterly complex

By Beth Park, Account Director

Robert Jenrick’s recent announcement on local government reorganisation consisted of a promise of “strong accountable leadership”, often lacking where county councils and multiple districts compete for power and resource. It was supposed to be an exciting follow up to the PM’s ‘levelling up’ speech, putting those (many, many) words into action. But from my own perspective as a Cumbrian, it was evidence of yet the same confused and complex thought process Westminster parliamentarians have become known for applying in the north.

There’s no doubt that Cumbria has been crying out for reform of some sort, but there has been considerable disagreement about how to go about it. Allerdale and Copeland’s proposal was for two unitary authorities, alongside a combined authority mayor covering the entire county. Cumbria County Council’s bid, on the other hand, was for a single unitary authority – an approach labelled ‘One Cumbria’.

The outcome, inconsistent with the Secretary of State’s approach to other similar initiatives, was to back the multi-layered system put forward by Conservative-led Allerdale and Copeland. This will result in an eastern council covering Barrow in Furness BC and Eden and South Lakeland DCs being created, and a western council covering Allerdale and Copeland BCs and Carlisle CC. And apparently there’s not long to wait until the proposals are put into action.

In a briefing about the process held by chief executives and senior officers from Cumbrian councils last week, council leaders were informed that it would be one of the fastest instances of reorganisation in the country. This was supported by Conservative Mayor of Copeland, Mike Starkie, who said the momentum was there to install the new councils in 2021 and that there was no cause for concern, given the plans have been 10 years in the making.

Cumbria County Council’s Labour / Lib Dem administration disagree and have gone as far as requesting a judicial review, claiming that Robert Jenrick “failed to conscientiously consider” the responses from their consultation “showing why the two unitary approach did not meet the Secretary of State’s own guidance and would not deliver that which his guidance required.” Indeed, Labour councillor Frank Morgan commented: “I am terrified about what’s going to happen to services doing it that fast. The unitary authorities come into being next year. The first thing they do is appoint executives and then they’ve got to get their act together in 12 months.”

The key worry is that there will be “diseconomies of scale” in services formerly led by the County Council, such as social care and children’s services. Re-allocation of staff is also likely to be profoundly more difficult. And with potentially a Cumbrian mayor in the offing, it seems as if the quest for simplicity has been thrown out of the window too.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the decision will strike the right balance between local government being close to the communities it serves, whilst having greater resources and freedom to drive positive change.

What is clear, is that a political decision has been made that doesn’t necessarily align with the broader agenda of local government reform and that will consequently face even greater scrutiny. Only time will tell as to whether the gamble has paid off – a gamble that will have tangible impacts for Cumbrians, for better or for worse.