Councils shake-up is under fire: Local Government Commission to announce more proposals today

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The Independent Online
PROPOSALS made by the Local Government Commission for England are beginning to provoke fierce controversy.

Cleveland County Council, which the commission proposes should be abolished, is considering seeking a judicial review; Margaret Beckett, Labour MP for Derby South, has warned that the commission is being put under political pressure; and Geoffrey Filkin, secretary of the Association of District Councils, has described the commission's job as a 'nightmare'.

Today the commission announces its proposals for Lincolnshire, Humberside and North Yorkshire.

It has already published draft recommendations for four areas. The plan to create one unitary authority in the Isle of Wight is uncontroversial. The decision to abolish Cleveland and base new authorities in Hartlepool, Langbaurgh, Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees has led to a claim by the county council that it could lose European Community money for a pounds 30m roads programme.

In Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset, the proposal is to replace 20 district and county councils with eight new all-purpose authorities. 'A disastrous series of mini-Avons across Gloucestershire,' the county council has said.

But the proposal for one unitary authority for the city of Derby, and one for the rest of Derbyshire, abolishing all the remaining districts, is the most politically sensitive recommendation. As Derbyshire is seen as a typical county, the decision has sent clear signals to surrounding areas, such as Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire.

The commission is looking at community identity, delivery of services and costs. The cost argument seems to be a weighty one. In Derbyshire, the commission, in explanatory leaflets, pointed out council tax savings. Misleading, the district councils said. Mr Filkin reminded ministers that the level of council tax depends on the policies of any new council and how much money central government gives to local authorities.

The commission was split over its recommendations for Derbyshire and at one stage considered not putting forward a preferred option, simply listing a series of alternatives. With Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset it has given much more emphasis to the idea of just keeping the status quo. These are our views, but if you do not like them, stay as you are, seemed to be the invitation.

Sir John Banham, head of the commission, has made much of his desire to seek the widest possible consultation. But even if every man, woman and dog in South Derbyshire objects, it will come to nought. Residents in South Derbyshire would have to join up with those in other councils to have a chance of changing the commission's mind.