Historic councils to lose fight for life: The final batch of proposals to change England's shire counties is unveiled this week. Nicholas Schoon reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MINISTERS are set to succeed in abolishing most of England's county councils. Counties will keep their cricket teams and their Lord Lieutenants appointed by the Queen but their 1,000-year-old status as political power centres will end across most of the country by summer 1997.

The changes, the most radical ever in English local government, are the brainchild of Michael Heseltine, who initiated a local government review nearly four years ago.

Despite cross-party resistance and a battery of legal challenges, the change looks unstoppable.

Ministers argue that it will make local government in the shires more understandable, effective and accountable to voters. But they also intend to cut spending by shedding more than 10,000 mainly white-collar jobs.

A few old counties, abolished 20 years ago, will reappear as local government units. While Rutland, Herefordshire and Huntingdonshire may return, Avon, Cleveland and Humberside, created in 1974, will disappear.

But so too will the bulk of the historic shire county councils, which have been discharging key state functions since before the Norman conquest. Berkshire and Somerset will retain only a ceremonial and traditional meaning.

When Mr Heseltine became Secretary of State for the Environment in 1990, he wanted to be seen to be doing something positive about local government aside from ending the poll tax. John Major allowed him to begin wider structural and managerial reforms even though there was little call for these changes from councillors or voters, apart from a few places such as Rutland, still smarting at the 1974 reform.

Ministers want one-tier authorities to perform all the tasks of local government, replacing the district and county system. They say these 'unitary' councils will be better understood, more accountable and more efficient. 'They'll be a one- stop shop; I just don't think people comprehend that the county council has one set of jobs and the district council has another,' said David Curry, the local government minister.

Mr Curry emphasises the need for improved services, urban regeneration and stronger feelings of local identity. But the Cabinet sees scope for savings.

A typical shire, governed by one county council and five district councils, will be run by three unitary councils. Instead of the entire shire needing six chief executives it will require three - and also only three personnel, legal and finance departments.

The axe will swing most vigorously through senior and middle management, its blows lessened by some job creation. This typical shire will require three chief education officers rather than one.

With 1,150,000 people working in shire government, even a 1 per cent trimming would cut more than 10,000 jobs. The Government will be looking for a higher percentage to justify the costs of the reorganisation, including redundancy, which may approach pounds 1bn. 'There's no doubt there is a hidden agenda to do with cutting spending,' said Owen Davies, an official with Unison, the biggest local government union.

In Wales and Scotland the Government legislated to impose unitary councils. Wanting to be more democratic in England, it created a Local Government Commission chaired by Sir John Banham, the former director general of the CBI, to consult the people and make recommendations. His independence of mind has sometimes troubled ministers.

John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, makes his choice for reorganisation county by county, based on the commissioners' final recommendation. He can accept, slightly modify or send their proposal back for a rethink: he has done so in the case of Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Durham. But under the Government's own rules, he cannot make his own proposals.

Finally, his choice has to be affirmed by both Houses of Parliament. The Government hopes to have taken the reorganisation through Westminster by July next year, with the new councils running on 1 April, 1997.

Because there are 14 high- powered commissioners the Government cannot hope to get unitary authorities everywhere. In some shires such as Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire they have decided that retaining a county council and two tiers makes most sense and will be popular. If, having been asked by Mr Gummer to think again, they decline to change their minds, he is unlikely to reject the recommendation twice.

In the commissioners' proposals so far, the tide is running against counties and the two-tier system. The final outcome will be a mixture, with county councils and the two-tier system surviving in places but new unitary councils predominating. 'I don't expect a neat and tidy pattern of unitary authorities to emerge,' said Mr Curry.

In eight of the commissioners' eleven final recommendations to date, they have proposed abolition of the county council. For the 27 shires where they have made only initial recommendations, they have favoured abolishing county councils in 17.