Does a slump slow down the process of centralisation?

hazel_blears-webHere’s Chris Game over on the excellent OpenDemocracy site. Chris is at the Institute for Local Government Studies at Birmingham University, and is writing here about Hazel Blears’ backtracking on local government reorganisation in the face of the economic downturn.

As is increasingly recognised, UK local government already operates on a scale that would prompt most democratic countries to put inverted commas around ‘local’. Our 468 principal local authorities for the 60 million of us equate to an average population of 128,000, or one councillor for every 2,730 residents.

The 60 million French get over half a million councillors in their 36,700 communes alone – one for every 120 of them. The Swedes get one per 200, the Germans one per 420, the Spanish and Italians one per 600, and again these ratios are for only the most local tier in 2- or 3-tier local government systems.

Take away England’s current 34 shire counties – as the Government has already started to – and England’s most local tier of 354 district, borough and unitary councils has an average population of over 140,000. By comparison, the commune/municipality average in France is 1,600, in Spain 5,000, in Germany and Italy about 7,000, and even in recently restructured Denmark about 50,000.

As a comparison, it’s a sobering set of numbers, and grounds for a good deal of pessimism about local democracy in the UK. I do, however, worry when I see articles like that one when they don’t make much effort to identify what the causes of centralisation are – and how they should be addressed.