Emeritus Professor Colin Copus, De Montfort University Leicester; visiting Professor Ghent University Belgium
The reorganisation of local government in England has been a long-standing objective of the centre – among civil servants and both main political parties. It appears however, that since the major reorganisation of local government in 1974 (1972 Local Government Act), the centre has shied away from another whole-scale reorganisation, preferring to introduce unitary councils, more often than not, by mergers and with a clear preference for county-based unitary councils.
It is likely, for the foreseeable future, that the centre will continue with the policy of avoiding whole-scale reorganisation, preferring to identify opportunities for unitary reorganisations in particular counties across England as and when the possibility emerges.
Central government has also sought opportunities to restructure local government by making reorganisation a condition of devolution. Policies towards devolution have so far been focused on an economic growth agenda (see, Wall and Vilela Bessa, 2016) but have resulted in the creation of larger structural units: combined authorities. It is likely that any devolution offered to local government will, in some way, be linked to reorganisation. But there is no logic or practical necessity which suggests larger local government is a necessary condition for devolution, especially as England already has councils with the largest average populations in Europe.
Since the 1974 reorganisation the three main British parties have dominated English council representation but since 2011 there has been a steady if gradual increase in the percentage of seats held by independents and smaller parties. In 2011 the three main parties held some 92.4 per cent of all English councils seats; as a result of the 2021 local elections the three main national parties hold 86.5 per cent of English council seats. There are, of course, fewer seats available on English councils than 10 years ago. The last 10 years has also seen an increase in the number of independents and smaller parties that are in ruling coalitions in local government. But, those increases do not reflect the number of seats held by Independents and smaller parties overseas where local government is based on smaller, more geographically coherent, units than exist in England.
The report assesses the effects and implications of unitary reorganisation and the creation of larger units of local government, which are an inevitable result of reorganisation, on councillors and on independent councillors in particular. The report draws on national and international research data.
The second section of the report sets out the context of the debate around the reorganisation of local government in England and draws comparisons with international local government. The third section examines how the size of English local government has affected the political composition of councils and the possible implications for independent councillors and candidates of the creation of large unitary councils in England. The fourth section examines some of the 2021 local election results. The report concludes by drawing out the general lessons for independent councillors and candidates from local government reorganisation.
Devolution and reorganisation: the context of the debate
Devolution to local government in England is the promise that never quite delivers. To understand government’s current thinking about devolution and why it is often linked to reorganisation, the section provides a brief overview of the background from which current policy emerges.
The introduction of large unitary authorities in the non-metropolitan areas of England was one of the key recommendations of the Redcliffe Maud Commission which reported in 1969. The commission recommended that England be divided into 58 unitary councils and three metropolitan two-tier areas. In addition, there was to be eight provinces, alongside Greater London which had been previously reorganised in 1965. To soften the blow of creating such huge units of ‘local’ government greater devolution was promised but which did not emerge with the 1972 Local Government Act.
The Labour government at the time of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission broadly accepted its recommendations but its defeat at the 1970 general election meant the new Conservative government rejected the proposals. Following an influential campaign which deployed the slogan: ‘Don’t Vote for R.E Mote’, the 1970-74 Conservative government rejected the Redcliff-Maud recommendations and introduced the two-tier system which still operates in the 24 shire counties not affected by the unitary principle.
The 1974 reorganisation resulted in the following reduction in the number of councils across England.
- Reduced 45 Counties to 39
- Replaced 1086 urban and rural districts with 296 District Councils
- Abolished 79 County borough Councils
- Created 6 Metropolitan County Councils
- Created 36 MBCs
- Replaced 1,210 councils with 377
- 32 plus 1 councils in London since 1965, plus GLC
- Total of 412 councils
Swathes of councils and councillors were swept away by the reorganisation and it is at this point, with the creation of larger councils, not unitary at this stage, that we see the beginnings of a decline in the number of independent councillors across England. Wales however, appears to have had a stronger tradition of independent voting as the decline is not so marked from this point.
A reduction in the number of councils has been a constant theme of the centre’s approach as table one indicates.
London Government Act 1963
Greater London Council and 32 London boroughs
Local Government Act 1972
Reduced 45 Counties to 39; Replaced 1086 urban and rural districts with 296 District Councils; Abolished 79 County borough Councils; Created six Metropolitan County Councils; Replaced 1,212 councils with 378
Local Government Act 1985
Abolishes six metropolitan councils and the GLC
Local Government Act 1992
Results in: 34, County Councils, 36; Metropolitan Borough Councils; 238 Districts; 46 Unitary councils
2009 re-organisation under the provisions of the 1992 Act
New unitaries Since 2009
Merged districts post 2009
Reduced 44 councils to nine across seven English county areas
Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole: reduces 3 councils to one (2019)
Dorset: reduces seven councils to one (2019)
Buckinghamshire: reduces five councils to one (2020)
West Northamptonshire: reduces four councils to one (includes the county)
North Northamptonshire: reduces five councils to one (includes the county)
Somerset West and Taunton: reduces two councils to one (2019)
East Suffolk: reduces two councils to one (2019)
West Suffolk: reduces two councils to one (2019)
Source: Copus, Roberts and Wall, 2017 (amended)
Table one takes as its starting point the reorganisation of London Government in 1965, but council numbers have been steadily reduced since the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act.
Since the Redcliffe-Maud report the ‘pro-unitary authority’ stance of Whitehall has long been a dominant feature of thinking about local government and that is abundantly clear in the current devolution-reorganisation debate. The stance was so strong that the Conservative Government in 1986 abolished the Greater London Council and the six Metropolitan County Councils and transferred the responsibilities of these counties to the metropolitan district councils who were designated unitary authorities. That designation was despite the wide range of joint arrangements which were required at Greater London and metropolitan county level; the local government system was unitary but the landscape of local government became fragmented among a number of unelected or indirectly elected bodies.
The conversion of Conservative government thinking to the unitary principle was displayed in 1992 with the establishment of the Banham commission to review local government in the shire counties. The terms of reference included a clear expectation that the commission would recommend unitary authorities to replace the existing structure, wherever possible. But after a series of in-depth studies in each county which considered community identity, public opinion, the pattern of ‘functional economic areas’ and the costs and savings predicted to flow from varies unitary options (and the status quo), the Banham Commission (and the Cooksey Commission, which completed its work programme in 1996) concluded that, in the majority of the shire counties, a move to a unitary system was not justified.
Unitarisation found little justification in the evidence collected by the commissions, nor did it attract significant levels of public support. In only nine of the 39 shire counties concerned were unitary authorities recommended and in only five were they introduced by the government.
In 2005, the Labour government requested bids from shire county areas to propose a unitary system of government (counties and districts were permitted to put forward different unitary models). In a process which has been described by Chisholm and Leach (2008)’ as ‘a debasement of probity in the way public affairs are carried out in England’ and which led to two judicial reviews. Nine new unitary authorities were established including two sub-county unitaries in both Cheshire and Bedfordshire, as shown in table two.
County area unitary proposal (number of districts in brackets)
New unitary structure
Change in number of councils
2 Unitary Bedford
4 reduced to 2
2 Unitary Chester
7 reduced to 2
7 reduced to 1
8 reduced to 1
7 reduced to 1
6 reduced to 1
5 reduced to 1
Came into existence on 1 April 2009
Since that point the creation of further unitary councils (or district mergers) has left the pattern of local government across England as follows:
- 24 County Councils (upper-tier)
- 181 District Councils (lower-tier)
- 32 London Boroughs (unitary)
- 36 Metropolitan Boroughs (unitary)
- 58 Unitary authorities (unitary)
- 2 Sui Generis authorities – City of London Corporation and Isles of Scilly (unitary)
Source: Local Government Information Unit
Giving a total of 333 councils across England (331 if the City of London and the isles of Scilly are excluded) for a population of 56,000,000; the average size of an English council is far in excessive of the European average. None of the unitary councils created since the late 1990s, including the most recent crop, have been the recipient of any significant devolved powers or autonomy from the centre or any new tasks, functions or responsibilities that would distinguish them from already existing councils. They are to all intents and purposes the same type of principal authority, as any other, within the diverse system of English local government.
It is clear that the government is still pursuing unitisation, with a preference for county based unitaries and the abolition of district councils where possible, with negotiations being conducted in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset.
Indeed, the statements from central government suggest three key elements to its devolution agenda:
- A commitment to increasing devolution to local government, along the lines pioneered in the various combined authorities, established from 2014 onwards.
- An emphasis on developing structures which can facilitate economic regeneration in the aftermath of the Covid virus and progress the government’s commitment to ‘levelling up‘ across England
- A strong predisposition in favour of the introduction of unitary authorities to replace the two- tier system of local government in the shire counties, as a means of achieving these objectives and as part of a long-standing civil service agenda.
But, a recent government announcement replaced the devolution white paper with a ‘Levelling Up’ white paper which means that further devolution is unlikely to be a major consideration, whereas structural reform still trundles forward.
Whitehall has held the view, since the 1960s, that unitarisation should be pursued, but why? There are clear advantages for central, rather than local government in unitarisation:
- Whitehall has long been aware of the extent to which its administrative duties would be simplified if, instead of having to deal with a messy two-tier system, it only had to deal with a much smaller number of very large unitary authorities, with the same range of functions.
- A small number of very large unitary councils would make central control of local government easier and would strengthen the centre’s hand in deploying local government as an agent of delivery of its own policies, rather than the recipient of devolution from the centre.
The preference for unitary authorities is often based on a presumption that large unitary local government is more efficient, effective and cost-effective than smaller units of local government. But, the findings of a recent report which examined over 300 pieces of independent evidence produced over 50 years showed there were no consistent nor guaranteed benefits from the creation of large unitary councils (Copus, et al 2020). The findings of the report can be summarised thus:
Figure one: Efficiency, effectiveness and performance: size doesn’t matter
Despite the conviction with which the case is made that increases in council size improve efficiency, effectiveness and performance, no consistent or conclusive results were found. In the literature surveyed, nothing could be used to justify the belief that larger councils are always more efficient, effective, cheaper or a better option in the provision of public services than smaller units of local government. The literature is contradictory and inconsistent findings on this matter, suggesting that other factors have overwhelmingly more impact on councils.
Figure two: Local democracy: size does matter
The literature is far more consistent in its findings that increases in the population or geographical scale of local government units have a deleterious effect on democratic criteria, such as:
The literature reveals that there is an inevitability that the democratic criteria of local government will be damaged by increases in council size.
(Source: Copus, Leach and Jones 2020)
Despite there being no research that shows large unitary councils are inevitably better than smaller, or two-tiered systems and despite the weight of research indicating that larger councils can damage local democracy, the government continues to exhibit a preference for large unitary councils.
International independent research has cast further serious doubt on the hypothesis that economies of scale and performance are conclusively linked. The overall lesson to draw from the evidence is that the use of this hypothesis as a determining factor in decisions about council size is wholly inappropriate (Bish, 2001, Slack 2003, Dollery and Crase 2004, Dollery and Fleming 2005, Andrews, et al, 2006, Dollery and Barnes 2007). Indeed, much of the supposed advantages of economies of scale and the ‘bigger is cheaper’ argument lose their force when councils work together to obtain purchasing advantages and saving through combined administrative functions, without the need for expensive and divisive reorganisations (Deller, Chicoine and Walzer, 1998, Dollery and Fleming 2006, De Ceuninck, 2010, Copus and Wall, 2017). The research findings reported in the literature involve cross-national and cross-continental comparisons and different constitutional systems and therefore have a credibility and generalisability that commissioned consultants’ reports lack.
Amalgamations of councils and the creation of larger units is not guaranteed to deliver economies of scale. Other options are available to generate scale and size economies, but that policy-makers often fail to recognise or to pursue options such as joint working, collaboration, enhanced financial autonomy for local government and greater cross boundary / cross public and private sector working (Teles, 2016, Klok, et al 2018).
The full costs of reorganisation are rarely set against the savings predicted to arise from amalgamations. Such costs are often overlooked in policy debates, but have long-term implications for the new councils which were created largely to ‘save money’. There is a lack of independent empirical research that has been conducted that shows that the merging of a number of councils into larger geographical entities with larger and more dispersed populations result in economies of scale and cost reductions. Indeed, the diseconomies of scale rarely figure in discussions about merging councils into bigger entities. The research literature indicates not only the complexity involved in issues of scale, but also the need for care in when seeking to understand links between performance and the search for the optimum council size. Newton aptly summed this up, thus:
the search for optimum size ... has proved to be as successful as the search for the philosophers' stone, since optimality varies according to service and type of authority' (Newton, 1982)
Independent academic research shows that one authority size cannot be demonstrated to be preferable to any other, but that different sizes are appropriate to different goals (Muzzio and Tompkins, 1989). Indeed, size sometimes appears to be seen as the solution to a range of local government problems; such arguments are undifferentiated and lack sophistication quite apart from being inaccurate (Denters, Mouritzan and Rose, 2012).
Schaap and Karsten (2015) show that the advocates of increased council size fail to appreciate how different problems – financial, economic or societal - operate at different scales and that increasing the size of councils cannot capture these various problems as they operate on different spatial scales: one size doesn’t fit all (See, Ruano et al 2012, , Blom-Hansen, 2016).
The whole business of increases in local government size was summarised succinctly by Keating (1995: 117) as far back as 1995 when he stated that:
The ‘right’ size for a municipal government is a matter of the local circumstances and the value judgements of the observer. Like so many issues in politics, this involves matters of ideology and interest’.
Ideology and interest is what has motivated the pursuit of unitary local government in England. Indeed national and some local political elites across the UK are unique among European nations, the USA, and much of the rest of the world, in their enthusiasm for unitary local government. Yet, tiered local government is far more often the norm for local government structure when looking at other systems. Below are some examples of the tiered nature of local government elsewhere.
Examples of local government tiered systems
- Belgium: 10 provinces; 581 municipalities
- Canada: 3,800 municipalities, 10 provinces 3 territories, 13 provincial areas
- Germany: States, 402 Counties, 11,902 municipalities, 295 rural districts and 107 district free cities.
- Spain: 50 provincial councils; 8,000 municipalities
- Sweden: 21 counties, 290 municipalities
- Norway: 11 Counties; 356 municipalities (3 municipalities are divided into boroughs)
- Denmark: 98 Municipalities (5 regions)
- Poland: 2477 municipalities, 380 counties, 16 regions
- France: 18 Regions, 101 Departments, approx 2,000 cantons, 332 arrondissements, approx 36,000 communes
- Italy: 20 regions, 107 provinces and just over 8,000 municipalities
- Japan: 20 self-governing cities which are independent of the larger jurisdictions within which they are located (much like county and district councils as a parallel)
Source: Copus, Leach and Jones, 2020
It is simply not the case that, internationally, unitary local government is the predominant model. Indeed, a recent OECD (2016) study of 86 nations found a two-tier system to be the predominant model, with three tiers of local government not unusual. In addition, countries such as Portugal, for example, also have parish councils.
The centre’s preference for large unitary councils however, has not benefited local government. The thrust of the devolution agenda since 2014 and George Osbourne’s ‘devolution revolution’ has been on urban centres and, in particular the creation of Combined Authorities with sub-regional directly elected mayors in eight of the ten currently existing. It is the combined authorities, not local government, that have been the beneficiaries of the government’s devolution policies.
What must also be recognised in the devolution process so far is that England, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has been the recipient of decentralisation not devolution and this is not a semantic point. The combined authorities have received functions, tasks, responsibilities and influence over aspects of the public sector, they have not received greater autonomy from the centre, or greater political and fiscal freedom, nor primary legislative powers, unlike the devolved parliaments and assemblies. In the absence of an English Parliament England continues to be short-changed in the devolution stakes and is likely to remain so.
Alongside the reduction in the number of councils that has occurred across England since 1963 (see table one) there has been a consequent reduction in the number of councillors with thousands of councillors being lost in the various reorganisations and reductions in council numbers. One thing is certain however, that the work-load of the councillors remaining after reorganisation does not decrease and that research has shown that there has been a consistent increase over time of the hours that councillors are now committing to their work (see, LGA, 2006 and 2008, Evans and Ashton, 2010, Kettlewell and Phillips, 2013, LGA, 2018).
Whereas fewer councillors does not mean the work-loads of remaining councillors is reduced, rather increased, the implications of this are greater for independent and smaller party councillors as there is a lower starting base and larger local government is likely to mean fewer councillors elected outside the three main parties over time (see next section). The strain of increased workloads will fall greater on councillors that are independent or from smaller parties as the organisational and resource base means the work-load cannot be easily shared.
Fewer councils means fewer councillors and given that the three main parties hold on council seats fluctuates around the 90 per cent mark fewer councils means less opportunities for the election of independent councillors or councillors from smaller national parties.
Finally, it is worth noting that where referendum have been held, in England, the public have been decidedly unconvinced of the merits of council mergers and the creation of larger unitary councils as these results show:
Shropshire Unitary, 23 January 2007
- Shrewsbury 70 per cent vote against unitary Shropshire
- Bridgnorth 86 per cent voted against unitary Shropshire (turnout 47 per cent )
- South Shropshire 57 per cent against unitary Shropshire (turnout 42 per cent)
Durham Unitary, 11 June 2007
The referendum was commissioned by the local authorities in Chester-le-Street, Derwentside, Easington, Sedgefield, Teesdale, Wear Valley and Durham City).
- Durham 76 per cent voted against a unitary Northumberland
- Turnout 40 per cent
Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (Dorset), December 2017 (all postal)
- Christchurch: 84 per cent voted against a unitary Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole
- Turnout 53 per cent
In each case the results of the voters’ preferences were ignored and large unitary councils were created, despite voter opposition.
A 2007 referendum in Somerset produced the following results:
Somerset Referendum, 2007
Mendip District Council
YES: 7,853 (20.2 per cent of the valid vote)
NO: 31,073 (79.8 per cent of the valid vote)
Turnout: 47.7 per cent
Sedgemoor District Council
YES: 6,840 (15.8 per cent of the valid vote)
NO: 36,412 (84.2 per cent of the valid vote)
Turnout: 50.3 per cent
South Somerset District Council
YES: 9,955 (17.3 per cent of the valid vote)
NO: 47,628 (82.7 per cent of the valid vote)
Turnout 46.2 per cent
Taunton Deane Borough Council
Turnout 47.7 per cent
YES 7,155 (18.4 per cent of the valid vote)
NO 31,708 (81.6 per cent of the valid vote)
West Somerset District Council
YES 3,048 (20.3 per cent of the valid vote)
NO 11,933 (79.7 per cent of the valid vote)
Turnout 53.9 per cent
Across Somerset 82 per cent of voters opposed the creation of a county-based unitary council in the 2007 vote and only 18 per cent voted in favour. In this case the unitary did not progress but this was not because of the referendum result, rather a central government decision. Currently, Somerset is one of three county areas currently being considered for unitary reorganisation; the other to being Cumbria and North Yorkshire.
The districts organised and held yet another postal referendum from 18 May to 4 June 2021 but because of strong signals from the government, the only options on the ballot paper this time were for some type of unitary council and not the status quo which received so much support in the 2007 vote. The choices for the voters were: Stronger Somerset (two-unitary option), or One Somerset (One county-based unitary). The voters overwhelmingly chose the option which offered the smaller (relatively so) units of local government and the results were as follows:
Stronger Somerset: 68.9 per cent One Somerset: 31.1 per cent
Stronger Somerset: 67 per cent
One Somerset: 33 per cent
Stronger Somerset: 64.1 per cent
One Somerset: 35.9 per cent
Somerset West and Taunton
Stronger Somerset: 61.7 per cent
One Somerset: 38.3 per cent
Stronger Somerset: 65.3 per cent
One Somerset: 34.7 per cent
Votes for Stronger Somerset: 72,541 (65.3 per cent)
Votes for One Somerset: 38,547 (34.7per cent)
Total eligible voters: 436,607
Turnout: 25.6 per cent
It is most likely that had the existing two-tier system been an option for the voters this time around that they would have again supported the status quo.
The results of the research referred to in this section has shown the exiting two-tier system is eminently defensible, it is simply not being defended and the ultimate result will be fewer councils, fewer councillors and fewer independent and small party councillors over time.
The implications of the creation of large unitary authorities for Independents and smaller parties is examined in the next section.
The politics of local government reorganisation
All candidates and councillors from outside the big three parties make a significant contribution to local politics because they inter alia:
- provide new channels of citizen engagement
- allow for new forms political activism
- increase the opportunities for public engagement in local government
- present new avenues for political accountability
- fill a gap in local political representation, as the mainstream parties increasingly fail to reflect the diverse range of views and interests that make up the local political dynamic.
To be able to achieve these and other contributions to local government and local politics, independents and smaller party representatives require a framework and structure which encourages and supports their engagement rather than restricts and restrains it.
Yet despite the positive contribution independent and smaller party councillor make to local democracy, in England the politics of local government are heavily dominated by the main three Britain-wide political parties. That is the case because the current structure and shape of local government encourages the major parties to see local elections and politics in 4 main ways:
- as an opportunity to control the provision of major services and substantial budgets
- to prevent national political opponents from controlling the provision of major services and substantial budgets
- as a battle-ground in which to replicate locally the party political differences, disputes and antagonisms that take place at the national level
- to keep the national party machinery in good working order locally, in readiness for general elections.
To be able to achieve these aims the main parties require a structure and system of local government that provides fertile territory for national party politics to be effective and for it to be structured on a geography that has advantages to one party or another.
If local government is shaped and structured on a system which is beneficial to the main political parties then the fortunes of independents and small parties are subject to the vagaries of a local system which can hinder their growth and development. Other factors also hinder independent and smaller party candidates such as the electoral system, organisational capacity, the competitive party political environment, media skills in shaping public perceptions and funds all of which affect the relevance, effectiveness and growth of independents and small parties in local government.
National politics can only benefit independents and small parties in local government at times when both a government and main opposition party are relatively unpopular or strangely at times when they are both equally popular and the voter seeks an alternative for local government; both Greens and UKIP have benefited in this way.
More bluntly, in the current structure of English local government, large territories often only loosely connected to real places with which the community have an affinity or identity, makes it easier for national parties to succeed and harder, though by no means impossible, for independents and smaller parties to match that success (Reiser and Holtmann, 2008).
What we know from international research is that there are certain condition for success for independents and smaller parties which are set out below:
- It is more difficult for independents and smaller parties to succeed in large urban areas.
- The chances for success for independents and smaller parties are higher in areas with smaller populations or as the population decreases.
- Regional and local factors promote or hinder the success of independents and smaller parties.
- The prominence of local issues which transcend national politics within an area can greatly enhance, if only temporarily, the success of independent or smaller party politics - the success of Kidderminster Health Concern being an example.
- If the main national parties fail locally to recognise or respond to important local issues, that may cut across party boundaries, independents and smaller parties can capitalise on local discontent.
- If the main national parties in any locality converge around a set of policies so they become indistinguishable locally, independents and smaller parties can provide innovative and unique policy options tailor made to suit a locality.
- If the main national parties in any locality become preoccupied with governing the area to the extent that they are removed from the concerns of local people independents and smaller parties can re-localise local politics to focus on local concerns and issues.
- A long-term stable independent and smaller party presence and activity in any area enhances their success.
- Independents and smaller party success locally is enhanced by the creation of some form of support organisation which operates across a local authority area to provide mutual support to candidates and councillors.
- A lively and active set of social groups, organisations, clubs, associations and societies within any one area supports the growth of independent politics, more so than smaller national parties.
- Independent candidates that are strongly linked to the social world of their areas and the social groups, organisations, clubs, associations and societies within it can increase their chances of electoral success through these networks.
- The longer an independent or smaller party candidate has lived and been active in an area the greater their chances of success – such local links and activity matter less for candidates form the main parties, who can rely on party label more than local presence if they choose (especially Labour and Conservative candidates).
- Decaying or moribund national political parties in any locality open up new territory for independents and smaller parties.
- The local electoral system matters to the success of independents and smaller parties but not as much as the size of local government.
- As the size of local government increases the chances of success for independents and smaller parties declines.
- Smaller units of local government provide much more fertile ground for successful independent and smaller party election success.
(see, Nielsen, 1981, Keating, 1995, Frandsen 2002, Denters 2002, Ladner, 2002, Larsen, 2002, Keating, 2003, Laamanen, and Haveri, 2003, Baglioni, 2003, Borazz, andLe Gales, 2005, Denters and Rose, 2005, Reiser and Holtmann, 2008, Copus, et al, 2009, Booger and Voerman, 2010).
What we see from these factors for local success for independents and smaller parties is that some are in the hands of national politics and parties and others rest very much with how independents and smaller parties organise, operate, conduct local politics and develop and build local networks beyond the council into local civil society.
What we also see, from wide ranging international studies, is that the size of local government matters greatly for the electoral success of independents and smaller parties and for the influence they can have in shaping their own fortunes across local government. It is also clear that the larger the units of local government become the greater damage is done to the presence of independents and smaller parties in council chambers. The damage done to independents and smaller parties as local government size increases is a phenomenon not confined to this country, but is a consistent international finding.
What must also be kept in mind when considering the fortunes of independents and smaller parties in local elections overseas is that European local government is on average, much smaller in population and area than local government in England (Gendźwiłł and Kjaer, 2021, Copus, et al, 2020, Erlingsson, et al 2020, Denters, et al 2014). The evidence is consistent that independent candidates and candidates from smaller political parties fair better in smaller units of local government or where there are prominent local issues at play; the results of the English local elections in 2021 help to illuminate these points.
The research across Europe shows that council size matters to independent and small party success, which is greater in smaller than larger units of local government (Gendzwill, 2012, Egner et al, 2013, Thrasher et al, 2015). It is also the case that the reorganisation of local government in 1972 saw a sudden reduction, in England, of independent councillors (see, Wood 1976, Game and Leach 1996, Aars et al 2012). There is however, a tendency for around 10per cent, or just above, of all councillors across England to be independents or from single issue groups, local parties of smaller national parties (Game, 2007), that figures does fluctuate across election years around the 10 per cent mark. Specific national and local issues or the lack of specific local issues are the reasons for the fluctuations around the 10 per cent figure.
Ten per cent however, is not a magic figure nor is it a guaranteed and definite outcome of local elections. It is highly likely that if the size of local government in England continues to increase that figure could contract further. Indeed, it is also the case that the 10 per cent is not always the same councillors in the same place; rather losses in some areas may be counter-acted by gains in other areas. In other words in the current system there is no sign of a consistent success or failure, decline or increase in independent and small party councillor numbers, rather a geographical shifting around against certain islands of consistent results – although those islands may only be one or two wards / divisions across a council area.
Prior to the May 2021 local elections in England there were approximately 1,900 what are labelled ‘other’ councillors. These others include independents, single issue groups, residents’ associations and local parties operating in one council area; alongside these were approximately 345 green party councillors. The total number of councillors in England was around 17,000.
Owing to the use of the cumbersome term ‘other’ as a catch-all phrase for councillors that are not members of the Conservative and Labour parties or the Liberal Democrats it is difficult, using multiple sources of data, to create an overall picture of the nature of the ‘other’ group. The ‘others’ from these data sources include:
- residents’ associations, eg: Halstead Residents’ Association Party,Wythall Residents’ Association and Loughton Residents’ Association
- local parties and groupings: Community Campaign Hart, Tendring First, Putting Seaton First
- single Issue groups eg: Kidderminster Health Concern, National Flood Prevention Party.
In addition to the above ‘other’ category are smaller national parties such as The Greens, UKIP, Brexit Party, Reform UK and regional parties such as the Yorkshire Party and Mebyon Kernow.
councillors are added then almost 14 per cent of councillors across England were not from the main parties.
Table three shows the overall results as a result of the local elections held on 6 May 2021.
RAIL & SP (Residents’ Associations, Independents, Local and Small Parties)
(*The figures are drawn from multiple sources and are still being refined as a result of the May elections 2021, so should be read with some caution).
The current situation in England is that about 86.5 per cent of councillors are from the main political parties, but there continues to be a steady growth of the number of councillors who are independents or from residents associations or smaller political parties.
To provide a contrast the comparative figures for councillors in Wales are set out in table four.
Table four: councillor affiliation in Wales May 2021
RAIL&SP (Residents’ Associations, Independents, Local and Small Parties)
If we consider Wales to be a four-party national system, unlike England’s three-party national system thee figures in table four can be seen as the four national parties taking just over 70 per cent of council seats with the RAIL&SP grouping holding 29.6 per cent.
The differences between England and Wales are explained by a longer and stronger tradition of voting beyond the national political parties in Wales and by the fact that the average population size of Welsh councils is smaller than the average population size of English councils. The results in Wales should not be taken to suggest that in the event of the creation of large unitary councils across England Independents will continue to gradually increase their numbers, as the evidence from the wider world shows the opposite.
A number of factors are observable from the results:
- The number of councillors, in England, from outside the main parties is still far below the numbers that can be found across Europe, where depending on the country concerned, 50 to 60 per cent of councillors do not declare membership of any main national party (see, Aars et al 2021, Boogers and Voerman, 2010, Gendzwill 2012 for examples).
- Most councillors outside the big three are found, proportionately, in the smaller, district councils.
- Important local issues can positively affect the election results for RAIL&SP candidates.
- The nature of campaigning and high local public profile has a positive effect on the results for RAIL&SP for candidates.
There are many powerful examples of independents and residents groups responding far more effectively, positively and speedily to local issues, than the major parties and as a consequence reaping electoral dividends. A residents group is part of a three group collation administration, alongside labour and the Liberal Democrats currently in control of Rother District Council, with residents having only one seat fewer (13) than the Conservative group. In Uttlesford a residents group has a 2-1 majority over all other groups combined and is firmly in control of the council. As a result of the 2021 elections Independents have taken control of the council as a result of a steady and consistent building of a local profile.
Another case in point, this time for a smaller national political party, is the result from Sheffield where the City Council's leader lost his seat to the Green Party, alongside four other Green Party successes, giving them an overall total of 13 seats on the city council. Although this success is for a smaller national party the Greens were able to capitalise on a specific local issue in Sheffield: the council’s felling of some 5,500 tress across the city in the last five years, with plans for 12,000 to be removed over the next 20 years. The issue led to huge local protest and the formation of the Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG). Similar victories for those campaigning on specific local issues occurred across the country counter-balancing losses elsewhere. It is the ability of those new independent and smaller party councillors to hold their seats and develop from them, rather than fall back in four years’ time that is required to establish and grow independent and small party representation in local government.
Despite fluctuations above and below the 10 per cent of all councillors that RAIL&SP candidates can achieve, the stark fact is that the size of English local government and the current electoral system operate in favour of the main national parties.
The impact of size of local government is more evident where elections are for the larger County Councils as in 2021. The lack of campaigning due to COVID had a disproportionate effect on the RAIL&SP candidates who rely on personal contact with voters, not TV coverage of a party leader. Moreover, the 2021 local elections co-incided with 18 months of Conservative Party leaders having national media coverage and being seen to be “in charge”, at a time of national crisis. The results of the 2021 local elections show a shaking out of seats between the main parties and shifts from Labour to Conservative overall, rather than significant and sustained progress for RAIL&SP candidates.
English local government has the largest units of local government, the fewest councillors and the smallest representation of councillors from outside of the main national parties across Europe. The current structure of local government is one which hinders the continual and steady growth of an independent and small party presence because:
- The larger the size of units of local government the more difficult it is to compete with the resources, organisation and tactics of the main national parties.
- The size of wards and divisions brings the same problems as one above
- The larger local government becomes the more elections become dominated by the standing of the government and opposition of the day.
- The main parties are more inclined to campaign harder in larger units.
- National trends and issues can be played out at the local level more easily in larger areas.
- Local issues can be marginalised into areas affecting only a few seats and thus control of a council may not rest on
- a few seats alone.
- Candidate recognition is harder for independents to achieve whereas the main parties candidates can rely on the party label.
- The larger a local government area the ore difficult it is to construct networks among civil society that may provide electoral dividends.
That is not to say that independents and smaller parties cannot be successful, simply that it is more difficult to do so in larger units of local government which, by their nature and scale, provide more fertile ground for national political parties, encourage voting based on national media profile, and are an arena where the political parties are allowed to dominate.
In the long-term with the current structure of local government and with the current voting system we could see continued gains for RAIL&SP candidates depending on a mix of national and local factors (mainly the latter) and related to campaigning skills and local profile that might buck national and local trends. But the dominance of the three main national parties will continue if further unitarisation and the creation of larger units of local government is not rebuffed, as it would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the number of independent and smaller party councillors elected, despite best efforts.
What is required is fresh new policy thinking about the size, and nature of local government and for a positive non-partisan view of the role of local government in the governance of the country and that can only come from Independent and smaller party councillors.
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