Public Service Management: End of the metropolitan line: County councils face an uncertain future. Andrew Evans recalls how the Government abolished local authorities serving 18 million people

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IT'S NEARLY 19 years since Parliament abolished the elected authorities of the six counties of Northern Ireland. More than 17 years have passed since legislation got rid of Scotland's 33 county councils.

The same two decades saw a radical re-drawing of the county maps of England and Wales, with many old counties and their councils wiped off the map and new ones put in their place.

More recently, the Greater London Council, created in 1965, and the six metropolitan county councils, set up in 1974, were summarily dismissed in 1986. The Inner London Education Authority disappeared in 1990.

Now the Local Government Commission is beginning its three-year task of restructuring the shire areas, and uncertainty hangs over the 39 remaining English county councils.

Three waves of county abolition - Ulster in 1973, Scotland in 1975, and London and the Mets in 1986 - served as reminders of the historical fact that it is possible to have a county without a county council.

That was the position from before the Norman Conquest until the creation of county councils in 1889. And even now, irrespective of the fate of councils, the Queen continues to appoint Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs as her representatives in most of the 'abolished' counties.

It is a factor that will be relevant to the commission's work. The Government, in its guidance on policy to the commission in June, suggested that 'the existence of some traditional areas should be recognised in statute, even though there would be no councils corresponding to them'.

County areas with historical or traditional significance, the Government said, could be 're-created or retained' for purposes such as maps, boundary signs and heritage, culture and sport. The same principle could apply to historic districts, cities or towns in areas where the commission wanted to keep the county council as the sole local authority. Maybe the Queen will be appointing Lord Mayors, too.

The coming round of abolitions - particularly if it involves historic and Tory-led English counties - could prove to be the Government's toughest yet. So there is some benefit to ministers in emphasising that counties do not need to have councils and in delegating the spade work to an independent commission.

Compared to the shire areas, the abolition of the Mets - which arose from a brief manifesto pledge in 1983 - was simple. They were relatively new, having been created in 1974, and had not taken root in public consciousness. The Mets did not control the major services of education and social services. They were all Labour-controlled and they were, in the Government's view, 'wasteful and inefficient'.

The abolitions of 1986 resulted in the loss of the GLC and six county councils serving a total population of nearly 18 million; of the full-time equivalent of 7,300 employees; and of 693 county councillors.

Reminders of the GLC continue to make news, with the future use and ownership of County Hall still unresolved and the former GLC leader Ken Livingstone active in Parliament.

But the metropolitan county councils outside London seem to have disappeared almost without trace, with most of the former County Halls literally erased from the map.

In Greater London, County Hall is owned by the London Residuary Body on behalf of the borough councils. It is the subject of two compelling bids: a pounds 65m conditional bid for the whole site from the London School of Economics, and a bid, reportedly worth pounds 60m, from the Japanese Shirayama Company to use the main riverside building as a hotel and conference centre.

Ken Livingstone, 47, the former leader of the GLC, is now Labour MP for Brent East; and Maurice Stonefrost, 64, the last director-general of the GLC, who became chief executive of the British Rail Pension Fund in 1986, now chairs the Municipal Mutual Insurance company.

The Inner London Education Authority quit County Hall when Ilea was abolished in 1990. The last leader of Ilea, Nail Fletcher, 48, is now education officer of the public service union Nalgo and a governor of the LSE. Ilea's last chief executive, Herman Ouseley, 46, is now chief executive of Lambeth Borough Council, which sought unsuccessfully in the courts last year to block the redevelopment plans for County Hall.

In Greater Manchester, the former GMC County Hall in Portland Street, Manchester, was sold to Parc Securities in 1988 for an undisclosed sum, believed to be between pounds 5m and pounds 6m, and refurbished for offices.

The present owners, County Hall Properties, bought it from Parc two years later and renamed it Westminster House in honour of the government that abolished the Greater Manchester authority.

The managing director of County Hall (Manchester) Management, the former GMC economic development chief and former Parc consultant Leslie Boardman, declined to disclose the purchase price. Press reports put it at about pounds 22m.

The seven-storey building is now used by the Halifax and Chelsea building societies, the AGF and Scottish Amicable insurance companies, and the German consulate. The owners are currently seeking more tenants. The last leader of the GMC, Bernard Clarke, 58, is now the manager of the YMCA Training for Life project and a director of Manchester Travel Services and of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

The county's last chief executive, Tony Harrison, a solicitor, remained Clerk to the Lieutenancy after abolition and became a director of various companies. In February, wrongly believing he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, 61-year-old Mr Harrison committed suicide.

Merseyside County Council never owned the offices at Metropolitan House, Old Hall Street, Liverpool, which it shared with the owners, the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo newspaper group. And, like the GMC, the full county council used to meet at the Town Hall.

Most of the 12 floors in Old Hall Street previously leased by Merseyside are now used by the Royal Insurance Company.

The county's last chief executive, Ray O'Brien, 56, went on to become chief executive of the Severn-Trent Water Authority and, later, of the city watchdog Fimbra. He took early retirement on health grounds two years ago.

Merseyside's last leader, the solicitor Keva Coombes, 42, rejoined Liverpool City Council on the county's abolition and went on to become the city's leader in 1987. He was deposed by the city's Labour group in 1990 and later suspended for defying the whip over proposed redundancies. He lost his council seat this year.

South Yorkshire's six-storey County Hall at Kendray Street, Barnsley, is now renamed Central Offices and is used by Barnsley Borough Council's housing, planning, and public services departments.

The 1960s building had originally been leased from the Norwich Union by Barnsley and then sub-let to the county to ensure that Barnsley remained the county town.

The county's last leader, Roy Thwaites, 61 today, is now a director of South Yorkshire Transport, the former municipal bus company, in Sheffield.

South Yorkshire's last chief executive, the solicitor John Harris, 56, worked for the PA Consulting Group for five years before setting up his own management and legal consultancy.

Tyne and Wear County Council's leased tower-block offices at Sandyford House, Archbold Terrace, Newcastle, were later known as Scottish Life House and were used, among others, by the county residuary body until its dissolution in 1988. They are now used by the Department of Social Security. The last county leader, Michael Campbell, is no longer active in local politics. The last chief executive, Jim Gardner, 60, a solicitor, is now a consultant as well as chairman of the Prince's Trust and of North East Television.

West Midlands County Hall, at Lancaster Circus, Birmingham, is now used by Birmingham City Council's architecture, engineering, building, finance, and environmental and consumer services departments. It is now known only as 1 Lancaster Circus.

The former county leader Gordon Morgan, now in his seventies, became a Sandwall councillor after abolition and later chaired the borough's economic development committee.

The former chief executive, Derrik Hender, 65, an accountant, is now a public sector consultant in Norwich. 'I had planned to do what I am now doing way before Margaret Thatcher thought of abolition,' he said. 'So, in effect, abolition did me a favour.'

West Yorkshire's County Hall, in Wood Street, Wakefield, is unusual among the former metropolitan authorities in that it was purpose-built in 1898 as the headquarters of the then West Riding County Council. Still known as County Hall, the Victorian listed building was taken over by Wakefield City Council at the end of 1987 as its main headquarters.

The former county leader John Gunnell, 58, became a Leeds city councillor on abolition and chaired the city's social services committee from 1990. He Gunnell became an MP three months ago, succeeding Merlyn Rees in the Leeds South and Morley seat.

The county's former chief executive, Bill Miles, 58, works part-time as a consultant in the Newcastle area.

Over the next few years, as the Local Government Commission strives to create single-tier authorities across the English shires, there will be a whole new wave of redundant councillors, officers and council buildings. But, judging by what happened in the Mets, there should be no shortage of public sector consultants.

(Photograph omitted)

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