County survival hopes pinned on 'holiday test': Derbyshire finds itself in the firing line as the battle is waged for the spoils of local government reorganisation and fears for its regional identity. Ngaio Crequer reports

THEY call it the holiday test: where do you say you come from when you are on holiday? First, perhaps your village or town, but do you then name your district or county?

It is this fight over community identity which lies at the heart of the battle over local government reorganisation. The first big English battle will be in Derbyshire. In Scotland and Wales, reorganisation is being handled by White Papers but in England a Local Government Commission, under the chairmanship of Sir John Banham, has been established to make recommendations. Derbyshire is seen as a model for the English shire counties.

It is in the first tranche for unashamedly political reasons, as even local Tories concede. There was Conservative frustration with David Bookbinder, the colourful 'high-spending, high- profile' former leader of the Labour-controlled county council, which led to calls for the authority to be dismembered. Mr Bookbinder is no longer even a county councillor but Derbyshire remains in the spotlight.

The aim of the reorganisation is to dismantle the two-tier system of county councils and district councils introduced in 1974. It left people unsure of which council ran their services and was messy and expensive. The commission is looking at proposals for unitary authorities, one council providing most services, including highways, education, and social services.

There are nine districts in Derbyshire: High Peak, stretching up to Glossop and nearly into Manchester; in the north the former mining areas of Bolsover, Chesterfield and north-east Derbyshire; south Derbyshire, nestling against the boundaries of Leicestershire and Staffordshire; in the west, the Derbyshire Dales, nearly one- third the size of the county, and finally the Amber Valley, Erewash and Derby City.

Last month, a leak suggested that the commission's first preference was for two unitary authorities: Derby City on its existing boundaries, and a unitary council sweeping up all the other present districts, a doughnut shape with Derby City in the centre. Its second option was for: Derby City; north-east Derbyshire, Chesterfield and Bolsover; and the remaining five districts merged as a unitary authority. It seemed the prospect of all or most of the districts gaining unitary status had gone.

Phil Richardson, Labour leader of South Derbyshire district council, said: 'We were astonished at what we heard. Either of the two leaked options would be disastrous for this area. They have totally ignored the community aspect and the idea that an authority must be close to its people, and more accountable.'

Though a single authority for Derby City might make sense, a council representing the rest of Derbyshire would be disastrous, the council claims. It would be huge, representing more than 700,000 people and, after Birmingham, the second largest unitary authority in the country. But, unlike Birmingham, it would be spread over a huge range of very different urban and rural communities, stretching from near Manchester to Warwickshire.

The council says giving unitary status to South Derbyshire would mean savings of at least pounds 6.5m over the next 15 years.

Lewis Rose, the Conservative leader of Derbyshire Dales, is convinced that the districts can run their own show. 'The Government has said that size is not a factor . . . Education is now being run on the ground level, social services are being run on an area basis, and there are even changes being made in police forces. We do not see why you need a vast bureaucracy to run a local council.'

The county council sees it differently. It is still Labour-led, but, in the guise of Martin Doughty, more moderately led. Tories are no longer the untouchables. John Morgan-Owen, the Conservative leader of the opposition, has even been allowed to chair public meetings on the reorganisation, something that would have been unheard of under the previous regime.

The county council's first preference is for the status quo. It feels a case for change has yet to be made. But if that fails, then the maximum it sees as viable is three unitary authorities. The county council, which argues that smaller authorities will cost more, says the districts have simply missed out some functions when they have made their costings.

It, too, is playing the 'quality of services' card. Nick Hodgson, the chief executive, said: 'On transport, you have to have an overall view of the road improvement programme for the whole county. It is difficult to plan roads and maintenance on a small, district scale.'

Martin Doughty insists that people identify with the county. 'Look at Glossop and Buxton in the same district. They have not even got a bus service between them because there is no community of interest. Ninety per cent of the services are provided by the county and they very firmly need a large authority.

'We are not a notorious spendthrift playing on the international stage. We have just made pounds 37m cuts in our budget, and we provide quality services at a lower cost than comparable counties.' He accepts that there is some substance to the charge of remoteness. He says that can be remedied by providing one-stop access points throughout the county and forging closer ties with the parishes.

John Morgan- Owen said: 'You have to have economy of scale. You have to lobby the British Parliament, you have to make representation to the EEC. That is relevant here because of the declining coalfields. You need to have a broad experience and range of professionals so you can put a package together.'

But he is critical of the process. 'The commission guidelines gave the wrong impression - that everyone could have everything they wanted.'

He believes that because of the declining coalfields, Chesterfield, Bolsover and North East Derbyshire should be together in one authority.

'I have chaired seven public meetings around the county and I asked people where they identified with. They said their village or small town, and next the county. Nobody said the district. The area has hardly changed from when it was mentioned in the Domesday Book.'

Twice as many people in Derbyshire vote Labour as Conservative. Another option which the Commission has considered is five unitary authorities. For example, one authority could be made out of High Peak plus the northern part of the Derbyshire Dales. This would then probably become a safe Tory area.

Mr Doughty said: 'No one has proposed a five-way split, but we think some people are selling it on the basis of community. It is a way of gerrymandering a split and would provide for maximum Tory control.'

The commission was due to make its recommendations last month but asked the Government for extra time. It will now report on 17 May. It insists, despite the leak, that no decisions have been made.

The Government may not want a Derbyshire largely intact but it looks as though that remains the first preference.

Perhaps the last word should go to John Owen-Morgan. 'I am sorry this is taking place at all. It is going to prove to be an expensive exercise at a time when we can least afford it. There are so many other things our officers need to be looking at - care in the community, opted-out schools, that is what they should be concentrating on.'

So has it all been a ghastly mistake? 'I would say so.'

The areas in the first tranche are: The Isle of Wight; Derbyshire; Cleveland and Durham; Humberside, North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire; Avon, Somerset and Gloucestershire.

(Photograph and map omitted)