County devolution: How technology can make unitary councils a timeless trend

technology unitary councils, levelling up
© Aleksandr Grechanyuk

Scott Goodwin, Head of Local Government at Idox, explains how technology can make unitary councils a lasting and functional element

As more authorities express interest in county devolution deals, from Norfolk to North Yorkshire, joining forces with other councils is clearly an attractive option. The appetite for devolution has been triggered by the Government’s ambitions to ‘level up’ the country, articulated in a recent whitepaper. This is because the UK’s prosperity depends on a range of local factors such as skills provision, the availability of services, land use, housing and transport.

It’s clear, then, that county devolution is moving to the forefront of the Government’s agenda once again. County devolution redistributes power dynamics across the UK, by enabling a group of councils to collaborate and make collective decisions across council boundaries, ultimately becoming a combined authority. With promises of regional inequalities being addressed, national and local budgets being realigned, and better, more streamlined services for residents across a range of constituents – are the benefits in reach and can technology make the transition to a unitary council model a success?

The opportunity: reward vs risk

Putting more power into local decision-makers’ hands and bringing together stakeholders will create conditions for sustainable and inclusive collaboration that has the potential to improve conditions for not only their constituents, but for the whole country. This is what county devolution promises.

We often hear how councils are financially stretched, whilst struggling to control and meet the needs of their residents. The promise of realigned national and local budgets is, therefore, an appealing offer for councils that are under increased pressure to constantly deliver better services.

Picture this: you have only been able to afford a certain set of clothes for the last decade, and although your items are trusty and dependable, the colour is starting to fade and they no longer fit as they did when you bought them. You are now offered a new shared wardrobe with the promise that you can choose what to wear, with guidance and more options, as well as an increased combined spending budget. It’s a tempting offer, but the clothes aren’t completely bespoke to you.

The question on both counts is: does the reward outweigh the risk? It’s a delicate balance. Any type of societal change risks breaking the bond between residents and representatives, therefore public trust must be maintained throughout any shift taking place. Uprooting traditional practices has the potential to ruffle feathers and cause fallout. And while more local power gives local people a louder voice, there must be the right processes in place that ensure opinions are heard and truly considered within effective decision making.

What’s more, despite realigned budgets, devolution doesn’t necessarily solve existing funding model issues. Councils, even when unitary, are going to face similar problems with sporadic funding pots. It’s therefore vital that there is a seamless shift to achieve the best outcomes and create a truly equitable relationship, not only between the central government and councils, but regions, services and people too. Now, there is opportunity for technology to ensure this is a smooth transition, by providing more efficient access and connections where it counts.

Collaboration is key

The pandemic has highlighted that there’s a clear ‘window of opportunity’, as outlined in the Future of Councils Report, for authorities and other stakeholders to work in a collective way, simplify governance and pursue greater collaboration to deliver better results for residents. Historically, the journey to a combined authority has not been quick and easy.

The devolution of Greater Manchester and Tees Valley, for example, resulted from decades of complex management of multiple stakeholders, often from the bottom-up, which meant achieving mutual solutions was an uphill climb. This is because county devolution is not a simple transition that can be completed through virtual meetings, for instance. The sheer volume and nature of data hosted across multiple sectors, areas and departments – which all have their own way of operating in an evolving landscape – must be understood and collated in a practical, simple and timely way to ensure that no one service, area or resident falls through the gaps. This is where technology comes in.

Trust in tech

At a time when public trust is incredibly volatile, and throughout times of significant change, councils must be empowered with the insight and tools to cope with any unitary council developments. Residents must be able to rely on those in charge of managing crucial aspects of their living conditions. Given the recent moves towards devolution by certain councils, it’s likely Plymouth and Devon, as well as Berkshire, could be next to join forces.

Technology designed to automate is essential for council consolidation, because it streamlines processes and removes the risk of human error and cases of residents falling through the cracks. For example, property-based data, allowing multiple modules of information to be migrated into one solution, and centralised data allowing information to be shared easily, ensures that councils can focus their time and resources towards urgent needs rather than being wrapped up in administrative processes.

What’s more, technology can be used as an effective tool to promote citizen engagement and online services, from better consultation and collaboration tools across authorities to centralised application services and portals. As we enter a digital era where people expect to access information through their fingertips, it’s important that councils can depend on tools and databases that are experienced and equipped to be one step ahead.

Implementing automated technology in county devolution can have a positive impact on the wider community too – more effective processes mean that more people are supported. Technology ensures that unitary councils aren’t just a short-term fashion, but a timeless trend which can have a significant impact in the long term. Addressing regional inequalities and providing positive outcomes for citizens this way is the end-goal; and by joining forces councils stand a good chance of promoting real social good.


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