Changing status could spark identities boom

As a further group of councils are set to gain unitary status, Clare Dowdy reports on the possible design opportunities

The Local Government Commission is in the process of recommending a final batch of councils for unitary status. The issue of a creating a new image after such a fundamental change is an important one, and many of the councils under review are gearing up to stage pitches for new identities.

So what exactly is unitary status?

Unitary status involves bringing all the responsibilities of local government under one roof, replacing the established two-tier system of counties and districts of England, Scotland and Wales.

With this aim, the Department of the Environment began a review of the structure of local government in various districts, counties and regions in 1992.

In his statement on local government reorganisation in March this year, Environment Secretary John Gummer described his aim to provide “a local government structure which can deliver effective services to its citizens and help build vigorous and self-sustaining communities” through the creation of unitary local authorities. “I have long recognised that local government needs to reflect local identities, history and tradition,” he added.

So an area with unitary status is expected to have a strong identity as part of its role in providing all local authority services such as police and fire services, land use planning, ceremonial matters and electoral arrangements.

What are the design possibilities?

Most councils seem to favour sourcing design through pitching, even if they have an in-house design team. Thurrock’s head of graphic design Cindy Walker created the town’s present identity after pitching against external groups for the job. “We may well have a pitch scenario again,” explains a Thurrock spokesman.

While councils may not have unlimited budgets for design, many are aware of the difference a strong identity can make to the community. Thurrock council, which got a new logo only three years ago, does not rule out the possibility of another change. A new look would help to illustrate that Thurrock council is merging with Essex council: “A new identity could mitigate against a take-over feeling” among council staff as well as the community, says the council spokesman.

The recreation of the county borough system for many large towns is seen by some as an attempt to restore civic pride, making traditional heritage symbols a popular choice with both councils and communities. Identity work will include creating new looks for merged areas, tweaking traditional coats of arms and designing complete image revamps of those authorities given their autonomy for the first time. Some areas are planning to revert to the name (and perhaps even identity) they had before the 1974 council reorganisation. Rutland is one such example.

Peterborough, whose current identity was created by a local consultancy, would look into “redefining its image”, a council spokeswoman says.

The areas expected to merge will have to create a look compatible with both. A spokesman for Dartford, which is on line to merge with Gravesham, says: “It is likely the new unitary authority would wish to establish its own identity.” In reality, both towns would be keen to maintain their individual identities within their own centres, he adds.

Rochester would have to reassess its image, as its recommended merger with Gillingham would mean its status would change from city council to unitary authority. Some potential new authorities are considering reviewing their unitary identity prior to the shadow elections, planned for May 1996, while others say that such decisions must be taken by the newly elected councillors. This is particularly true of newly merged authorities, such as Dartford and Gravesham. “The exact nature of change would be a post-election matter for any new all-purpose council covering both boroughs,” says the Dartford spokesman.

What is the current state of play?

Parliamentary approval has been given to ten unitary authorities. These came into force on 1 April.

The commission has recommended the creation of a further 50 new unitary authorities in England, most of which have been accepted by the Government. This now has to get Parliamentary approval, which is expected to be granted in November. The new unitary councils are due to come into effect from April 1997.

See news, page 5.

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