Focus groups to take decisions on drains and dustbins

FOCUS groups of voters could replace committees of councillors as decision-makers under plans to be launched tomorrow. The move could produce the biggest shake-up in local government this century, writes Stephen Castle.

The proposal for "citizen's juries" will be one of the central elements in a green paper to be issued tomorrow. The move comes as Tony Blair prepares to outline wider reforms which may help to kill the council committee system.

His speech to Labour's local government conference in Scarborough today will echo last year's message to the Trades Union Congress in which he challenged the movement to adapt or die. Mr Blair will warn: "Corruption in councils will not be tolerated." He will threaten investigations and punishments.

Mr Blair is concerned at the low voter participation rate in local elections and the lack of young, female and ethnic minority councillors. Possible ways forward are to put proposals before focus groups of voters instead of council committees, to allow small teams of full-time, paid councillors to form "cabinets" which would take most decisions, and to create city mayors.

Other ideas include postal voting, polling stations being moved to shopping centres, electronic voting with smart cards, weekend voting, annual elections and referendums.

n Gavin Strang, transport minister, yesterday told the conference that speed limits in residential areas could be reduced from 30mph to 20mph in the interests of children's safety.

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