Public Services Management: Road hazard in county plans: Abolishing councils could threaten centuries of co-ordinated local transport policy. Jon Reeds sees trouble ahead at the borders

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR'S desire to abolish county councils in England and Wales and regional councils in Scotland and thus 'recreate the ancient map of England' could resurrect some authentic medieval problems as it brings to an end nearly five centuries of strategic local control of transport.

It was in 1530 that the failure of many towns and parishes to properly maintain their road bridges prompted a law which placed this responsibility with the County Quarter Sessions.

Counties were originally judicial bodies, but this need for strategic oversight of transport thrust them into a wider role. From the 17th Century they began to appoint county surveyors, including engineers of the calibre of Thomas Telford. And control of transport was a key factor in the setting up of county councils in 1887.

Plans to abolish them have already achieved a historic first by uniting environmentalists, the road lobby and user groups in opposition to the idea.

In a note of caution that was echoed by a number of critics, Keith Madelin, president of the County Surveyor's Society, said: 'Local transport is a strategic service - covering roads and all public transport - and it needs to be managed on an area-wide basis.'

Local authority roads still carry 70 per cent of all traffic in Britain, and management of road traffic is emerging as an important national issue. Substantial growth is inevitable and this dictates a strategic approach to urban restraint. 'Without a strategic view, small authorities can be very prone to the opinion that any restriction can harm their town centres - and help their neighbours,' warned Stephen Joseph, director of Transport 2000.

Advance warning of the problem was provided by abolition in 1986 of the Greater London Council and metropolitan counties. Traffic initiatives by the GLC were stalled for years before being taken up by the London boroughs.

Boroughs and metropolitan districts have big enough populations to sustain some of the work of the counties, but few of the small unitary shire bodies now proposed will be so lucky. A stiff test for them will be resistance to controversial developments like out-of-town shopping centres, where developers can play off authorities against one other.

As soon as Greater Manchester County Council was abolished the 10 districts there faced an immediate flood of such proposals. Attempts to stitch together a consensus soon tore apart as they began supporting competing applications, while opposing those in neighbouring districts.

Public transport co-ordination is another under-appreciated county and regional responsibility. Councils not only support bus services, they have also organised and funded the reopening of hundreds of British Rail stations and a growing number of railway lines.

Without strategic authorities, time and resources will be wasted on trying to unite politicians from different authorities. Mandatory joint public transport boards replaced metropolitan counties and often find it hard to work together.

Joint boards only ever go as fast as their slowest members - even in these politically homogenous areas. Once again, central government interference and control is signalled, warned Mr Joseph. 'Without the counties' strategic view, the Department of Transport road-based view will hold greater sway, and public transport will be much harder to co-ordinate.'

Strategic political control apart, there are concerns over resources, too. Even relatively populous metropolitan districts must struggle to support their specialist teams. The unitary shire authorities will often be much smaller.

This is not just a question of retaining specialist engineers and planners, it literally can be a matter of life and death. Counties and regions can collect information and study accidents over a wide area and concentrate resources where they are really needed. Despite traffic growth, road casualties have been falling, and the skill of council road safety units is an important factor.

Would more - smaller - authorities sustain this work at an inevitably higher cost? The abolition of metropolitan counties suggests otherwise. Merseyside County Council's accident investigation team vanished without trace in 1986.

'Part of the great reduction in accidents is because counties have thought big and have allocated scarce resources to the worst sites,' said Bert Morris, public policy manager for the Automobile Association.

The populations of smaller counties are already at the lower limit needed to sustain such teams. Other specialist areas, such as transport planning and bridge engineering, raise similar concerns.

Mr Madelin said his own county, Shropshire, with a population of 400,000, struggles to sustain its specialist units.

Such work is already jeopardised by recent legislation subjecting it to compulsory competitive tendering. Competition is already squeezing blue- collar work by the councils and there are worries whether areas like gritting, snow clearing and emergency work can be sustained, even without the abolition storm cloud.

'Already where main roads cross boundaries there are problems co-ordinating snow clearance,' said Mr Morris.

But local government reform remains in the legislative fast lane with Parliament considering Bills to abolish the Welsh counties and Scottish regions. Even the future of joint boards looks uncertain. While the fire and police services will have statutory joint committees, the Local Government Commission in England has suggested voluntary joint boards for transport.

'If counties are to be split, somebody has to address the issues,' said Mr Morris.

Far from bringing the decision-making process closer to the people, abolition is more likely to increase central government interference. Already the Transport Secretary has hinted he may take over major county roads.

The choice appears to be decision-making by Whitehall, or no decision-making at all.

'You need a robust political framework to make hard decisions,' said Mr Madelin. 'Transport is a rapidly expanding problem. How can it play its role in sustainable development if you have destroyed the mechanism to deliver that?'

If counties and regions are abolished, the travelling public will suffer. So too will the environment and road safety. But the other victim in the casualty statistics will be democracy.

(Photograph omitted)