The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster councils announced on Friday morning that they will be investigating sharing all of the services provided by their councils.
The response in the media was suitably ridiculous.
The most commonly asked question from the great and the good in our media was how local people would know who to contact when they needed to get in touch with their local authorities.
This 100% missed the point. If I need social care, admissions information for my child or simply to pay a parking fine I don’t really care where the people I call are: I just want them to come and provide the service. Birmingham council is much bigger than this merged council will be and no-one gets upset that they don’t know who to call.
There are practical issues to overcome for sure but very few of them are related to the way that people get in contact with the council.
In fact most people would not even care which council provides their public services.
However, there is a real risk with what the three Boroughs are proposing.
The reason we have local Government is to allow members of the public to vote for different political parties with different priorities and therefore deliver varying public services. One area might focus on reducing council tax and another area might focus on providing high quality social housing or improving their education results. These are choices and those choices directly influence the way services are provided.
The issue that needs to be addressed is how a shared service will enable difference in the provision of services; how will politicians be able to drive new policies or priorities? How will residents be able to bring about change?
Anyone who has worked for two bosses understands how this can distort priorities and be difficult for all involved.
A totally shared council might remove that flexibility and make the votes and choices of politicians meaningless. If that is what the councils want to achieve then fair enough. But surely they should simply merge the councils and remove the complications.
This shared service caught a lot of people by surprise (contacts in both councils had not heard about this until Friday morning).
It’s a bold idea which should be celebrated but the risks to the future flexibility of the local authorities worries me.