People are talking about reforming London’s boroughs. The catalyst for this has been the sharing of services between three west London authorities: Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham. I thought it might be worth exploring some of the issues.
There seems to be a received wisdom that bigger is better. However, although areas for local government have been getting bigger for some time, there is no evidence that larger authorities automatically produce significant efficiency savings.
Nor is there any consensus on the optimum size for local authorities. The Greater London Group of the London School of Economics submission to the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London, which informed the creation of the current boroughs, included proposals with seven boroughs and another for twenty five. The royal commission itself eventually suggested a fifty two borough solution and during the passage of the bill, as we know, the number was reduced to 32. How can we know which would have been better out of 7, 25, 32 or 52? How can we tell which would be best now?
Another point to consider is that in London we’ve had local authorities of around 200,000-300,000 populations for much longer than is implied by references to the last reform in 1965 which merged smaller authorities together. Even before 1900 Wandsworth, Poplar, Battersea, Kensington, Greenwich, Croydon, Hackney, St Pancras, Camberwell, West Ham, Lambeth and Islington all had populations larger than the smallest London borough today. Perhaps this is a ‘natural’ population level for London authorities?
But is size of boroughs the right question? Do we really need them at all? The answer to that might be found in the reason boroughs were created in their first guise in 1900. The boroughs were devised as a counterweight to the London County Council, which during the first eleven years of its existence was effectively the largest unitary authority the United Kingdom has ever seen. Although the boroughs were envisaged primarily as a means to check the power of the London-wide authority, from 1986 to 2000, the pendulum went completely the other way and the boroughs became the unitary authorities whilst the regional authority ceased to have corporate form. The arguments about which of the two would be better, or a fudge somewhere in between the two, have been ongoing for over 100 years and we are still no closer to a consensus on that.
So, after a multitude of reforms of London’s local government in a relatively short period of time, I would suggest any reshaping of the boroughs has some sort of evidence basis, because there isn’t any clear consensus on what the share of powers or the size of authorities should be. Another stab in the dark will require another reform in about 50 years or so. We are in danger of perpetually alternating between all the available options.