Are administrative geographies important?

In September 2010 my colleague Warren Escadale (@vsnwpolicy) posted a piece on NCVO Foresight about changing geographies. This was at an early stage of the coalition government and we were just starting to see new ideas emerging.

I bet we have all said at some point ‘that people’s lives are not based on administrative boundaries’ – and it is always true. Sometimes the boundaries seem meaningless, arbitrary and nonsensical. But I just wonder how important they are really when we are trying to cut red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy and when we need more collaboration than ever. Is meddling with boundaries the right thing?

I was relieved that the listening exercise undertaken by the Department of Health recommended that new clinical commissioning groups should not normally cross local authority boundaries (it was also good to see that they must have names that link them to their geography – a great relief as some started to sound like they were teams on The Apprentice!). This at least should not lead to confusion at many health & wellbeing boards about who or what is in ‘their patch’, and, it should aid partnership working between the health service, local authorities and others.

However, the NHS has not organised its PCT clusters in the northwest alongside the traditional sub-regions in two areas – and that throws out simple co-terminosity with the Work Programme geographies and the LEPs. I also understand from discussions with DCLG that the people who will be their links to ‘geographic areas’ will have odd combinations of sub-regions – so someone has Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire as a patch – again lacking co-terminosity with some other structures.

I have also recently learned that the two Skills Funding Agency patches that cover the northwest will have one aligned to the boundaries of the Work Programme (Merseyside, Lancs, Cumbria), but the other patch will extend into Staffordshire.

It may seem like a minor issue, but for me, the changing geographies are a big issue on two counts.

Firstly, in terms of the bureaucracy and barrier to partnerships I believe it will create in the long run, the additional stakeholders required around a table or the different number of people you will be trying to get information to or requesting information could be massive. You may also find you are being asked to slice up the information and rebuild it in many different ways to meet the geographical anomalies and it could become ridiculous. I have at times felt Greater Manchester has built a bit of a wall around it – but then they have also created an area where you know the boundaries and few people can interfere – great credit is due for that!

The second issue is the challenge for the third sector – so many organisations are place based, they rely on their geographical reach and knowledge of an area. If the new geographies become new commissioning areas it will create greater problems for these groups who do not cross boundaries easily or wish to remain focused on their patch. ‘Form partnerships/new ways of working’ I hear the reformists cry: all well and good, but that requires new relationships that have no history and no solid foundation – on this sort of issue the sector can be slow.

The only benefit is that it will make ‘very local’ more important and it may be the only way to join up partners. My concern on this is that the government has yet to realise localism costs in the first instance – the savings are down the line.

This may not seem important to some, a minor irritation to others, but I predict that the ever increasing chaos of the new geographies will come back to bite us all on the bum – at least I can point people back to my blog and say ‘told you so’! There again – I could be plain wrong.


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