The strange, remote world of ever-larger bureaucratic services


A symptom of decreasing community participation in public service planning and management is the increasing size of public service organisations.  It has now reached a stage where there is no effective public participation, just consultation and not much of that.

This is not a new phenomenon; it has been going on in UK local government for over 40 years. In 1974, the small rural and urban district councils and the city councils were taken over by larger district councils and county councils, and the city councils such as Southampton became district councils. Further reorganisations in 1986, 1992 and 2000 followed the same path, albeit with a few contrary politically inspired hiccups.

Unitary authorities now rule the roost, with some odd results such as Hereford City Council retaining its name and becoming a parish council.

The current situation is of all-powerful local authorities, whose bureaucratic culture and management is beyond the ken of their service users, and barely understood by the local politicians confronted with endless bureaucratic tomes.

In the NHS it is going on, with NHS trusts joining up with like-minded trusts and with local authority social services departments.  Again there is little awareness or understanding amongst those being served.  This time, the process of increasing bigness seems to be faster than in the past and from below more difficult to understand, even if you are aware it is happening.

Don’t try and understand the following example of what is happening around here, because hardly any of us can and most are unaware of what seems like endless muddling.

In 2011, the Wye Valley NHS Trust was established by merging Hereford Hospitals NHS Trust with Herefordshire Primary Care Community Trust and Herefordshire Council’s Adult Social Care Services. In November 2016, it was announced that the Wye Valley NHS Trust was to set up an “alliance” with South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust. Then in September 2017, it was announced that two NHS trusts which serve Gloucestershire and Herefordshire will merge, and the 2gether NHS Foundation Trust and Gloucestershire Care Services NHS Trust will join together.

These are all clips from the local newspaper.  I’m not sure if I have got it right, but that is how things are when you don’t understand!

Why would NHS Trusts in Herefordshire and Warwickshire have an “alliance” when they don’t even adjoin each other?  At least one of the trusts provides services funded by both the NHS and the local authority.  Lots of liaison meetings there methinks.

As these organisations become bigger, they become increasingly remote from those they claim to serve.  England is run by an all-powerful bureaucratic system.  It is a system which is impossible to dismantle, because of the array of those with vested interests in keeping the current system.  Vested interests not only within the public sector but also outside, as a result of outsourcing to private sector organisations, which are themselves getting bigger.

This is nothing to do with left, right or centre.  It is how things become when political control is lost.

Can it ever end?

There is a tiny hint of things to come, maybe.  Our red telephone box is now a library filled with books and run by local residents.  Apparently there are more than 4,000 phone boxes across the UK which have been taken over by local people running all kinds of enterprises wanted locally.  Local participation free of all consultation from above.  Bravo!

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. nigel hunter says

    Are we heading towards a country where we end up organising at a local scale and building up from there and becoming distant from the big boys.? A country of 2 extremes?

    • Barry Cooper says

      Maybe so. Especially if the existing top-down services become increasingly unable to deliver what those of us down below want. I met someone yesterday whose village phone box is now a gallery for local artists.

  2. Peter Arnold says

    As I see it, the main problem is that local government is not recognised in the legislation as a legitimate system of government in its own right. It simply exists as the agent of national government. It is the case that central government does not trust local government to be effective, which is why so much of what happens locally is the implementation of national government policies. Finance is the supreme example of this.
    I live in Northumberland which is a unitary authority foisted on us by Tory Blair’s Blue Labour government. The only saving grace is that the whole of the county is parished, and most have their own directly elected councils. This is where true local government exists, and it is largely non party political. I’ve always had the view that we ought to give parish councils more powers, not less. What do others think?

    • Barry Cooper says

      I agree. But everything that Parish Councils can or could do is dictated the powers they are given by Government legislation and how these powers are manipulated by the County/Unitary authorities in their area. Neighbourhood Development Plans are a good example. These plans supposedly enable Parish Councils to decide how they want their parishes to be developed physically. But these plans relate only to the use of land and they have to accord with the Local Plans prescribed by “their” County/Unitary” planners. So, Parish Councillors are really just involved in processes enacted by Government and passed down to those below. For Parish Councils to be able to do what they want they must have full financial control of their doings, including borrowing and raising money locally, and be unconstrained by national legislation. For example they would have to be able to have their own social and education services. Which would require them to enact their own bye-laws. None of which seems likely. However, as local public services are withdrawn the private and voluntary sectors can “jump in” and fill some of the gaps.

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