Place: Barnsley It may be a grim town, poor of pocket and health, but it has a young Labour council leader who is way ahead of Tony Blair in transforming local government
IT IS EASY to take the mickey out of Barnsley. People have been doing it for years. There is, in Yorkshire, the legendary story of Gilbert Gray QC who was representing a working man from the town before a judge of particular pomposity who, at one point snootily interjected: "I take it, Mr Gray, that your client is familiar with the maxim: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" "Indeed my lord, responded the QC drily. "In Barnsley they speak of little else."

No one in Barnsley, of course, could be expected to understand the Latin for "Who polices the policemen?" For Barnsley is stereotypically a grim town of flat caps, whippets and pigeon lofts which was last year described in one report as the poorest town in Britain. Until recently, Barnsley was bottom of the national table for the amount of government money going to the local council, bottom of the table for employment and top of the league for long-term illnesses - the legacy of the lung-diseases of mining.

It is also in the heart of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Labour has been in power here since 1935. So Barnsley was, presumably, the kind of place that Tony Blair had in mind this week when he launched his initiative to change the culture of Britain's local government.

The Prime Minister has proposed that local councils should be run by directly elected Big Name mayors who will appoint cabinets to assist them, with the rest of the councillors acting as backbenchers to scrutinise this powerful new executive. He wants councils to ditch the idea that they control and run the place and instead to adopt the role of leaders in partnerships which involve local business, schools and colleges, health trusts, the police and voluntary and community groups. He wants councils to transform themselves from bodies of middle-aged men into groups which more accurately reflect the makeup of the local population with far more young people, women and members of ethnic minorities.

But hang on. For backward old Barnsley is actually well ahead of the game here. Just over a year ago, the controlling Labour group elected their youngest member, Steve Houghton, then only 38, as its leader. He began a Blairite transformation of the town six months before Mr Blair himself took office.

I say "began" advisedly. Mr Houghton has a long way to go, as was evident last Thursday at the council meeting to approve the budget for next year. There, in a council chamber panelled with handsome walnut veneers and surrounded by fluted columns in oak topped with gilded Corinthian capitals, the worthies of Barnsley gathered in their antique dignity. Chaired by the mayor in red robes, white ruff and heavy gold chain, the council went through the charade of debating measures that had already been agreed by the town's real decision-makers, the Labour group's political executive.

For two hours, the council's 63 Labour members indulged themselves in a round of puerile party political mockery, thick with "thees" and "tha knaws", at the expense of the three opposition councillors (one Conservative and two Independents too scared of the electors to call themselves Tories). The session would have confirmed all Tony Blair's worst suspicions.

There have been revolts against the excesses of the one-party state in Barnsley before. At the end of the Eighties, one disaffected Labour councillor set up the Barnsley Party protesting that Labour's incestuous relations with local government unions meant that council employees were, in effect, running the place. Jack Brown also objected to party members packing the Tenants and Residents' Associations which ought to have been a check on the council's activities.

But his was a voice in the wilderness (partly because the arrangements were too cosy for many of the town's key figures, and partly because Mr Brown held deeply politically incorrect views on the feminist and gay lobbies in the party). "What Blair is doing is what we advocated in the Eighties but everybody said it was too idealistic," said Mr Brown this week.

Sitting in the leader's office, Steve Houghton diplomatically declined to pick up on the references to the now defunct Barnsley Party. There is still a deal of resentment against Mr Brown among Mr Houghton's older colleagues. Instead, the young leader turned his attention to Tony Blair's pamphlet - which, with commendable Yorkshire frugality, he had in a photocopy (the 22-page booklet costs pounds 4.99 in its original form). The "partnerships" that the Prime Minister proposes - on crime, education and economic regeneration - already flourish in Barnsley, thanks to Mr Houghton.

"In education, we're trying to find out why the results at the [tertiary] college are so good and in schools so poor," he said. Only 28 per cent of pupils pass GCSEs at grades A to C in the town, compared with an national average of 44 per cent. As well as bringing together all levels of education, and local businesses, Mr Houghton wrote to parents to ask them to get involved; cynics were dumbfounded when 6,000 wrote back and volunteered to join in.

"It's a radical change," said Alan Sherriff, one of the businessmen involved who is also chairman of the local hospital trust. "He is bringing people together without a pre-set agenda. I think we're making real progress on both education and on beginning to nurture the entrepreneurial culture the town has always lacked."

Key to that is the establishment of a Business Development Agency as a private company in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and others. "Sixty per cent of the seats on the board have gone to the private sector," said Roger Nunns, the chamber's chief executive. "He has had a very hard job persuading the old guard on the council to accept it. Many of the die-hards would like to revert to the old ways of command and control."

Mr Houghton himself is sanguine: "We cede control but gain influence," he said.

"Going back to the idea of 'give us more money and we'll do everything' is not an option," he told fellow councillors in the budget meeting. At the end of his speech he was applauded - vehemently by some, but only politely by the kind of councillor the Prime Minister hopes to replace with new blood.

What Tony Blair wants is women like Julie Kaye, a 36-year-old mother who has been the dynamo behind finding premises for a pre-school playgroup in the village of Cawthorne. She has managed to squeeze in - between her childcare and her evening job as a telephone banker with First Direct in Leeds - an impressive catalogue of fund-raising, lobbying and work on planning permission.

By the school gates, I asked would she ever think of becoming a councillor. She said she has not the time, but Mr Blair wants councils to abolish many of their time-wasting committees. She said the politics would put her off, but Mr Blair insists that "councils need to avoid getting trapped in the secret world of the caucus and the party group". Perhaps, then, she said, she might: "I've got the background, the education and the go - but I didn't know they needed me," she concluded disarmingly.

Less party politics is what Alan Sherriff wants too. "The politicians will never agree," he said. "If they depoliticise politics they will destroy their power base. But they could try and change the tone, so that skills rather than ideology dominate."

Such issues will now become matters of great debate even among the pro- Blair factions in local councils. "New Labour is the lesser of two evils," concluded Jack Brown, who now styles himself a Christian communist. "But not all Blair's ideas are sound. The notion of an elected mayor, for instance, might produce greater efficiency, but if you got the wrong man it would be a passport to corruption. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" he concluded. In Barnsley, it seems, they speak of little else.