diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 10, 2011

There are plans afoot for three London boroughs to do a bit of sharing. What with cuts looming and everything, they want to share backroom services across the three boroughs to benefit from some economies of scale. Sure, hundreds of existing employees in triplicated jobs will end up redundant. But councillors argue that's a small price to pay if care homes and school provision and other frontline services don't get slashed.

The three boroughs are Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham. Don't worry, they're not going to merge, because that would be ghastly. They'd have to call themselves The Royal City of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham, or W&K&C&H&F for short, which'd be a real mouthful. Instead they're going to stay independent but make joint decisions on cross-borough resourcing. There'll be one Head of Street Cleaning, one Head of Trading Standards, one Head of Libraries, and so on. It's yet to be decided whether those Heads will have any staff reporting to them, or whether existing employees will be hived off into private companies who'll be contracted to do everything at reduced price. All the proposals are in a 100-page Tri-Borough report which you can read here, and either nod vigorously or shake your head and weep.

Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham aren't the only London boroughs thinking of sharing backroom services. Three groups of Labour councils have also eyed up partnership packages, although not quite deeply as W&K&C&H&F. One's Camden and Islington, who plan to pool road repairs, refuse collection and more. Another's Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, who cover fairly similar neighbourhoods south of the Thames. And the third is Haringey and Waltham Forest, with plans for shared payroll and school meals provision.

These potential super-boroughs would punch above their separate weights. Camdislington would have a population greater than Bristol. Royal Westkenchelfulsmith would have a higher population than the whole of Buckinghamshire. Walthamgey would be more populous than Manchester. And Lamwarksham would match the combined population of Devon and Cornwall, crammed into a space no bigger than the city of Plymouth. There are plenty of economies of scale here, should Londoners choose to grasp them.

But there's a major potential problem here, which is that these groupings only work while the councils are run by the same political party. Southwark's only been Labour controlled since last spring, whereas Hammersmith and Fulham never used to be Conservative before 2006. What happens after the next election if these super-boroughs end up ruled by different parties. Where's the accountability then? A newly-elected Labour administration in H&F might want to withdraw from the service-slashing tri-borough agreement, but would find it incredibly difficult to do so. They'd have no Environmental Health department of their own, nor any parking wardens, nor a dedicated H&F library service. Everything would have to be bought back, or transferred across, or else left permanently in sold-off hands. Sharing services may be an excellent way of cutting costs, but it's a one-way transformation.

Looking deeper, why does London have 33 different recycling teams when fewer would be much more efficient? What if larger councils were indeed the best way to go? So I've had a go at dividing up the capital into super-boroughs to see how a new map of municipal London might look. It's just a bit of fun, as Peter Snow might say, and not based on any existing plans at all. Yes, I know you hate the borough nextdoor that I've paired you up with - there'd be a lot of opposition to this consolidation. But that's precisely how the last reorganisation of London's councils was carried out - three former boroughs combined to created one much larger one. These new tri-boroughs are simply the next natural step, so long as value for money's more important to you than local accountability.

Or we could go the whole hog and create a Greater London Council. That'd be more efficient still, surely, with services coordinated across the capital to give best value for all. If all goes well, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham might wonder what they've started.

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