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If ‘place-shaping’ is the answer, the question is: where are the places?

Local boundaries in England have been in constant flux for over a century. Mark Sandford of the House of Commons Library reflects on this key issue affecting both devolution and local economies.

English village

For an issue that ostensibly attracts little political (or research) attention, English local administrative boundaries have experienced almost constant change and challenge throughout the 20th century and the first part of the 21st. A pattern of gradual review throughout the early 1900s prefigured a comprehensive reform in 1974. This was followed by partial reforms in 1986, 1994-96, 2007-08 and 2018, each of which featured court action by at least one affected local authority.  

This history of conflict could imply an ongoing disregard of cohesive local areas by top-down administrative systems. But the evidence for cohesive local areas within England is, with a few exceptions, very weak. Local boundaries in England have always been a second-order issue, and thus after half a century of repeated restructuring, we are no closer to a consensus on where they should run.  

How decisions have been made about where ‘places’ are

The lack of consensus has been thrown into relief by a number of think-tank reports during the 2010s proposing the devolution of power to local places within England.1 Very few of these have specified where those ‘places’ should be. Localis’s 2017 report The Making of an Industrial Strategy had the temerity to do so, and attracted much criticism from district councils and from the Local Government Association. Localis based their proposed map of ‘strategic authorities’ on “geographies over which people live their lives, economies function and businesses operate” (p15). Yet this is not the only possible consideration when drawing local authority boundaries.

Others include:

  • Functional economic areas: these are built up from census data, reflecting travel-to-work patterns, housing markets, and transport structures. FEAs have had comparatively little influence on local authority boundaries in England, though they have long been used for statistical analyses. Many of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) established in 2010-11 claimed to cover FEAs.
  • Scale: much debate focuses on local authority ‘size’ – normally meaning optimal population figures. Current Government policy favours unitary authorities covering 300,000 – 700,000 people. This orthodoxy too has varied over time, and the research evidence on optimal population size is inconclusive.
  • ‘Affective identity’: a sense of belonging to or identifying with a locality. 
  • Democracy and efficiency: essentially, this meant ensuring that authorities were ‘small enough’ for councillors to have a full understanding of local issues when determining priorities.
  • Continuity: since the reforms of 1972-74, the vast majority of changes have used the county and district council areas created then as ‘building blocks’, introducing change by merging authorities rather than creating new boundaries from scratch. This minimises disruption to service provision; but it also minimises any challenges to those boundaries. 

The reorganisations of English local government in the 20th century have featured widely differing balances between these five criteria. The 1972-74 reforms stressed continuity, but also made some concessions to scale and functional areas, leading to the creation of six metropolitan counties, and other new council areas. The 1992-95 Local Government Review stressed “the identities and interests of local communities”,2  whilst the 2007-08 restructuring disregarded affective identity almost entirely, focusing on scale, efficiency, and ‘local consensus’.  The 1969 Redcliffe-Maud Commission did try, uniquely, to balance all of the criteria noted above, and came up with a set of boundaries that pleased no-one.  

Do people care about locality?

Local authority restructuring has repeatedly generated great political heat. The 1992-95 Review saw considerable campaigning and manoeuvring by local authorities, and large quantities of public opinion data, with varying effects on proposals for change. Shrewsbury and Congleton district councils tried to halt a review outcome via the courts in 2008, as did Christchurch in 2018 – emboldened by a local referendum that saw 84% support for its continued existence on a 53% turnout. 

It would be tempting for government to argue that administrative boundaries are a non-issue. After all, English local elections rarely see turnouts above 40-45%. There is little evidence that English councils attract much affection as institutions.3 Yet there is other evidence that local places matter to people – and more in some parts of England than others. A large-scale BBC / YouGov survey in 2018 showed higher proportions of respondents in the North of England stating that they identified with a particular county or region – with strong identification also found in East Anglia, Devon and Cornwall, and parts of the Midlands. What this ‘identifying with’ means to individuals is unclear, but, as John Tomaney has argued, it may have implications for identifying the ‘places’ to be ‘shaped’ by devolved power.  

Events demonstrate that the question of ‘where are the places?’ has a tangible influence on implementing the devolution of power within England. On 12 February 2019 the Government revealed that it would not pursue a devolution deal with eighteen local authorities known as ‘One Yorkshire’. It expressed a preference for multiple city-based devolution deals, on the grounds that Yorkshire is too large and is not a ‘functional area’. This was not the first boundary controversy in Yorkshire: in 2016-17, district councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire sought full membership of the Sheffield City Region, and were ultimately stymied in the courts. County council concern about a city ‘takeover’ formed a part, though not all, of that dispute.

The decision on One Yorkshire seems to provide further evidence, as Arianna Giovannini argues, of the “lack of clear direction of travel” for English devolution. But it also draws attention to the multitude of ways in which ‘place’ can be defined. This issue has been stifled in recent decades, likely due in large part to the repeated challenges to restructuring proposals. But it is unlikely to go away, and as Professor Patsy Healey has argued, is likely to be addressed more effectively through expansive engagement. In the same vein, Professor John Denham has proposes a “citizens’ constitutional assembly” in the wake of the Brexit process to address, amongst other points, the question of “whether we think we live in places we can name, with boundaries we understand”.

Yorkshire forward? 

As of March 2019 it now appears that the One Yorkshire vision has been put on hold, as Sheffield City Region moves to implement its devolution deal. As part of this its mayor, Dan Jarvis, is in effect seeking a ‘break clause’ in 2022, when One Yorkshire might be revisited. The Government’s response is awaited. Future decisions on Yorkshire will shed more light on what, in the Government’s view, makes a ‘place’. A better understanding of the interaction between identities and economic behaviour would help that decision be made effectively – and minimise ongoing disputes.

Mark Sandford, House of Commons Library 


A longer study of local administrative boundaries in England will be published by the House of Commons Library later in 2019.

See also Mark Sandford, Local boundaries in England: what is ‘place’?, House of Commons Library, 22 November 2018 


Footnotes:

  1. Examples include the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’s City Growth Commission (2014) and Inclusive Growth Commission (2017); the report of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on Economic Justice (2017); ResPublica’s Devo 2.0: the case for counties (2017); Reform’s Vive la devolution: devolved public services commissioning (2018); NLGN’s Place-Based Policy-making after Brexit (2018); the Institute for Policy Research’s Place-Based Perspectives on the UK’s Industrial Strategy (2018); and Localis’s The Making of an Industrial Strategy (2017). The newly-launched UK 2070 Commission, investigating regional inequalities, may also take a similar perspective. 
  2. Local Government Act 1992, section 13 (5)
  3. Ken Young, Brian Gosschalk and Warren Hatter, In search of community identity, MORI, 1996