Ten towns and cities `should have wider role'

Local Government Commission: Shake-up of councils heads towards public consultation to decide the winners and losers
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The Independent Online
Ten more towns and cities in England deserve more powerful councils, the Government's Local Government Commission recommended yesterday.

The ten should take over functions such as education and social services - currently run by county councils - and thereby take charge of the full range of local government services, said the commission.

Eight of the 10 named yesterday were Thurrock in Essex, the new towns of Peterborough, Warrington, Telford (known as The Wrekin District Council) and Runcorn (known as Halton DC), Northampton, Blackpool and Blackburn.

The commission also recommended that four district councils in Kent should merge into two new unitary councils, covering the full range of local government functions and replacing Kent County Council in their areas. Dartford should join with Gravesham and Rochester with Gillingham.

But commissioners rejected the independence for historic cities such as Gloucester, Exeter and Norwich, much to the disappointment of their city-based district councils. It also turned down unitary status for Basildon and Huntingdonshire.

The latest recommendations mark the beginning of the end of a confused, turbulent reorganisation of English local government outside the seven largest conurbations which began more than three years ago.

The Government had hoped that the existing two-tier systemwould be abolished. The counties would vanish and local government would be run by a single tier of smaller councils.

But while it imposed this unitary system on Scotland and Wales by Act of Parliament, the Government chose to set up a commission in England in order to be more consultative and democratic. The commissioners' task was to consult locally before making recommendations to the Government.

Once the commission had completed this task in March, the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, ordered the abolition of only one traditional shire county council - Berkshire. He also accepted a call for the demise of three new counties created in the last local government reorganisation in 1974 - Avon, Cleveland and Humberside.

But while abolishing very few counties, Mr Gummer said 38 district councils should become more powerful unitary authorities. He also sacked the commission's chairman, Sir John Banham, because he failed to deliver the changes the Government wanted. Then he told the commission to reassess the case for unitary councils in 21 more towns and cities.

The commission, under its new chairman Sir David Cooksey, made its recommendations on these yesterday. A six-week consultation period now begins in the 21 areas, with opinion polling and radio and local newspaper advertising.

``If our arguments are wrong please tell us,'' Sir David said. ``We do listen ... and we can change our minds.'' The commission will make its final recommendations to the Government early next year.

About half of the 39 English county councils will lose some territory and funding and will have to cut staff as a result of the reforms. But the town and city councils gaining extra responsibilities will have to create new departments and hire new staff, most of whom will come from the counties.