COMMENT: Is it time for Slough to move back to Bucks?

Does the current impasse over housing and antagonism between authorities over transport infrastracture have more to do with mistakes and missed opportunities when local government boundaries were set 42 years ago?  And do rival authorities hold the key to resolving the situation?

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Bucks residents were quick to savage Slough’s plans for a “garden suburb” in February, telling the town to make space within its own borders to accommodate new housing and employment land.  More recently the proposal was labelled as “petulant”.  Yet Slough is legally obliged to find solutions to its housing crisis – which are bigger, after all, than any single authority.  Meanwhile the piecemeal approach to resolving transport issues between districts has seen elected representatives playing off residents against each other in pursuance of limited geographic and political interests, and generally just moving the problem elsewhere.

That Slough is short of land for new housing is nothing new; it did not need the findings of the Berkshire Strategic Housing Market Assessment last October for the town’s housing crisis to be fully acknowledged.  And, surely, there can be no surprise that, given the option, South Bucks has opted to jump ship into the Buckinghamshire Housing Area?

Local Authority

Area

Population

Slough

12.56 sq mi

144,575

South Bucks

54.55 sq mi

68,512

Chiltern

75.81 sq mi

93,972

Windsor & Maidenhead

76.61 sq mi

147,400

Wycombe

125.32 sq mi

174,878

Aylesbury Vale

348.55 sq mi

184,560

But the scale of the crisis, and the Council’s current land constraints, owe much to the disparity of local government boundaries – and a missed opportunity over 40 years ago.  The continuing failure to redress the anomaly of a tiny, artificially created district which would forever need to keep one eye on its bigger neighbours before deciding its own housing, transport and employment aspirations has been shortsighted.  But its roots were sewn through a desire to avoid too much change rather than what, these days, would be termed “sustainability”.

South Bucks residents may fear the northern expansion of Slough but the town remains the major employment source for many living in Bucks.  And, being part of Bucks as recently as 1974, the separation is more fluid than some would have us believe. There are many in the former Bucks villages of Upton, Wexham, Chalvey, Cippenham, Langley, and Colnbrook that still identify with the more rural feel of Bucks than the modern high rises and congested roads of growing Slough.

However, even four decades ago when boundaries were last set planners had warned that the town needed “room to breathe”.

1975: Boundary review fails to “give Slough room to breathe”

The last major review of local government boundaries completed in 1975 shied away from making major changes, coming too soon after the 1972 Act that gave local government its biggest shake-up in centuries.

Back then Buckinghamshire County Council had promoted a long term aim to restore the River Thames as the historic county boundary while Berkshire County Council and Slough Borough Council both made demands for further land to be ceded from Bucks to Berks.

The Berkshire councils both expressed their “deep disappointment” at the limited nature of draft proposals during the review.  But, coming so soon after Parliament had transferred Slough to Berkshire, the Commission found the more drastic proposals from either side to be “beyond our brief in this review”. It was also unwilling to make any changes to the then fledgling Beaconsfield District Council which should be “given a chance to settle down and prove its viability in operation”.

South East population density by local or unitary authority, 2010

South East population density by local or unitary authority, 2010

There had been high hopes during the passage of the Local Government Act 1972 that there would have been a comprehensive look at the county boundary in the vicinity of Slough that would take account of the extent to which the borough had grown and the fact that it now needed space to “live and breathe”.

As the Commission’s final report noted in 1975:

“The two authorities expressed the hope that, even at this stage, we would think again about undertaking a wide ranging review of the county boundary in this area”.

Other than the transfer of Colnbrook and Poyle to Slough, from Bucks and Surrey in 1995 there has been no major revision to district boundaries in four decades; the 2011 review focused on electoral arrangements only.

The 1972 Act itself was a huge compromise.  The Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1969 had proposed a much bolder shakeup of local government, including a uniform structure of 61 unitary authorities for England of similar size providing similar services.  Colnbrook, Slough and parts of South Bucks were set to become a large unitary county with Windsor and Reading.  The Conservatives, instead, wanted to preserve the two-tier system.  The 1975 boundary review had little chance of pushing through any real change.

2016: A new unitary authority for Bucks?

Slough remains, as a result, one of the smallest local authority areas in the country by area, ranked 306 out of 326, but it has one of the highest population densities.

unitary-bucks.png

Could Slough’s future lie in a unitary Bucks authority?

During last year’s submissions to the Davies Commission Slough Council and MP Fiona Mactaggart focused on compensation for lost business rates and council tax for properties buried under a Third Runway, with the very viability of the borough coming under the spotlight.

Slough has little room to expand south, and the major physical barrier of the M4 separates it from the rest of Berkshire.  Could proposals to restructure local government in Bucks, where transport problems are so interdependent, provide the key?

Following a change in the rules which came into effect in 2011 the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) allowed for a principal area boundary review (PABR) to be carried out at the request of LGBCE itself, the Department for Communities and Local Government, or a local council.

PABRs are reviews of the external boundaries between local authorities. Reviews range from addressing minor boundary anomalies that affect a few houses, to mergers of councils.

Typical changes that prompt the need for a review, the LGBCE says, include:

  • The relevance of the boundaries between local authority areas have been eroded over time, due to land use changes or physical developments, changes in the social and economic character of areas, or evolving ideas about how local government services to people and communities may best be managed.
  • Residential development may extend a town or village to such an extent that it spills over the local authority boundary.  In those circumstances it may make sense to move the boundary to bring the whole settlement into one local government area.
  • Residents living within major developments which take place on the fringes of, for example, a semi-rural authority may look to a nearby large town or city in an adjoining authority for shopping, work, recreation and other services – which may be more cost-effectively and conveniently delivered from that large town or city.
  • Adjoining local authorities may believe that those living in their area may be better served by a merger, to create a single council which can deal in a consistent manner with common or cross- boundary issues, and/or offer economies of scale in the commissioning, management, and delivery of local government services.

Buckinghamshire County Council has already expressed a desire to merge with the four district authorities to form a new unitary authority.  Unlike Berkshire, the county council escaped abolition in 1974 but times have moved on.

The districts have objected to Bucks’ proposal but welcomed in principle the need for change to better coordinate services and make savings.  In May this year Bucks proposed a £50K budget to consider alternative models of local government for the area.

Should such a realignment of current boundaries be an opportunity to resolve some of the problems impacting communities from “old” Buckinghamshire and new?

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