This blog is not generally intended to be political. However, there are a few subjects where it just can’t be helped. In 1998 Berkshire County Council was abolished and replaced with six unitary authorities. With those councils currently agonising over setting their 2016 tax rates, this seems like an opportune moment to stand back and take a look at the system implemented nearly two decades ago.
The six unitary solution followed recommendations from the Banham Commission in 1994. The previous model, still used in much of the country, was a two-tier local government model, with county councils running services like education, transport and planning policy, each supported by multiple local district or borough councils running bin collections, council housing and determining planning applications.
The Banham logic was that for smaller counties the two-tier model was wasteful. The cost of the county administration could be cut entirely, and even after accounting for duplicating its responsibilities in each of its local boroughs, you’d still have a net saving. I don’t dispute the logic of this one-tier model. But the end result in Berkshire is slightly odd. We have full implementations of local government separately in each of Reading, Wokingham and Bracknell. Functions that previously ran at county level now duplicated three times in just ten miles. I think this is a unique situation. Even in London, where boroughs are similarly close together, they have a wider London authority above them that takes control of some services such as transport.
To me it seems pretty clear that the single tier unitary model is the right one for a small county like Berkshire. The mistake they’ve made is that there are too many local authorities. The original Banham proposal actually included five rather than six, with Bracknell and Windsor & Maidenhead combined and dubbed ‘Royal East Berkshire’. That union never happened. I think the better solution would be to cut one of the three central Berkshire authorities, with the obvious candidate being Wokingham. My solution would be to add Wokingham town and its rural environs into a new Bracknell & Wokingham Borough, with Woodley, Earley, Winnersh and potentially Charvil, Sonning and the Shinfield area combined into an extended urban borough of Reading.
So let’s explore the benefits of such an arrangement…
Removing one full implementation of local government would surely save more than the extra costs incurred within the Reading and Bracknell administrations to serve their additional residents. The implication is that those councils could now improve services, or more likely lower council tax.
The old adage says “you get what you pay for”. The exception to this rule would appear to be council tax, where everyone gets the same and what you pay is a fairly arbitrary function of political boundaries, local housing mix, demographics, and potentially a small element of how efficiently your council is actually run. The roll of the dice in Berkshire has favoured Windsor and Maidenhead, with a band D annual tax there coming in some £400 cheaper than Reading. Bracknell also fares well, as shown below:
I would speculate, even with a single digit percentage efficiency saving, the impact of my revised Berkshire scheme would be that Reading’s residents would see their rate set somewhere around the current Wokingham level meaning no change for those areas moving into the borough. At the same time, Wokingham town’s residents would probably benefit from lower rates currently enjoyed in neighbouring Bracknell.
2) Public transport
Reading has just seen £850 million invested in its railways. The station has been substantially expanded, with the rail lines untangled and the Cow Lane bottleneck about to be removed. Meanwhile, Wokingham has failed to resolve the ludicrous situation of having the whole town’s road network beholden to a level crossing next to the station. Tunnels and bridges have been invented for hundreds of years, but news, it would appear, of these wondrous innovations has yet to reach Wokingham. Perhaps a Bracknell and Wokingham authority could have more success at winning investment for such modernisations.
Meanwhile, it’s Reading’s publicly owned bus company that serves the Wokingham-administered suburbs of Earley and Woodley. Undoubtedly, it would be simpler to run those services and reconcile the myriad of subsidies and funding complications if those areas all belonged to the same authority.
3) The A329(M)
No need to add much to what I’ve said before. Hopelessly mismanaged on numerous occasions by Wokingham, it’s hard to think that had Reading and Bracknell been sharing this road, they would have let the latest Highways Agency M4 priority scheme go ahead un-scrutinised. If you think that this couldn’t possibly have been such an oversight then the more conspiracy-minded among you might like to consider that Leafy Lane Finchampstead motorists, Wokingham Borough’s heartland voters, would probably only ever use the road to access the M4, as local minor roads would be their choice to reach Reading or Bracknell. So actually the new scheme is not-at-all bad from their narrow perspective.
4) Misrepresentation and Size
Wokingham town has a population of around 30,000 people. Woodley and Earley both have more, and function as suburbs of Reading, which is far better placed to represent their needs than a small market town six miles down the road. Taking all of England’s unitary authorities, only Rutland has a smaller ‘largest town’ than Wokingham Borough (whose largest population centre is, ironically enough, Woodley).
Especially relevant for Reading, with its loftier ambitions, being able to properly plan and integrate its suburbs into the thriving capital of the Thames Valley would be key. Reading is attracting record investments and delivering huge regeneration projects. Wokingham, on the other hand, has descended into an existential crisis over whether to build a few shops on the corner of Elms Field. To me it’s a no-brainer that planning for the whole Reading urban area together would be beneficial.
6) Less squabbling
Politicians will feud regardless, but you’d have to assume that today’s quirky boundaries exacerbate the situation. Recent arguments have focused on education, with complaints from Reading about treatment of its residents with regard to selection for Wokingham Borough schools. Recently, a solution for this in East Reading has been agreed which sees the sought-after Maiden Erlegh school open another site within Reading under its management. I didn’t know schools could do that, but fair play to the authorities for thinking outside the box. Although, this will certainly test out the theories on whether what you get out of a school is function of its management and teaching, or simply of the demographics that went in in the first place.
Other feuds have taken place over the university campus, which straddles the boundary, and over the business parks, whose rates find their way to Shute End rather than Bridge Street. Meanwhile the councils take it in turns to object to each other’s planning applications: Wokingham lambasting the proposed expansion of Reading’s showpiece Madejski Stadium and Reading berating the infrastructure being provided to support new housing developments on its Wokingham-run outskirts. You also get some needless posturing such as the comical naming of the “Wokingham Waterside Centre” in Thames Valley Park, literally in the shadow of inner city Reading’s Newtown Gasometers, and some nine miles from land-locked Wokingham!
7) Fewer politicians
A final and more obvious benefit of having fewer unitary authorities is having fewer politicians to oversee them. That’s normally a vote winner in itself. But in a small area like central Berkshire, it would likely also drive up the quality with the stronger candidates likely to get the posts to run the larger departments covering the larger authorities. I should add finally, this restructuring proposal is no attack on the many hundreds of excellent staff employed by these councils.
So could it happen?
What strikes me as odd is that whenever private businesses are looking to make savings, one of the first things to be considered is rationalising operations, closing a local branch office and finding economies of scale elsewhere. The public sector is quite evidently desperately seeking efficiencies, and yet this avenue is one that appears not to be available for local government. With the last major study on local structures now 23 years ago, it is surely inevitable that this will come up again soon. And if Google does its job on indexing my website, maybe the next John Banham will stumble upon this page, and hopefully agree with me that there’s room for improvement here in central Berkshire.Follow @readingonthames