Leader of councils review body criticised

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The Independent Online
SIR JOHN BANHAM, chairman of the commission reviewing local government in England, was prepared to sacrifice its independence of judgement to maintain good relations with Whitehall, according to correspondence in the possession of the Independent.

In a letter to ministers in November, Sir John agreed to think again about the commission's proposals for reshaping Derbyshire, on the very day that they were announced - to government displeasure.

The commission had recommended keeping some of Derbyshire as a two-tier authority of county and district councils, while the Government is determinedly seeking a new unitary authority structure.

Sir John's instant offer to look again at his own commission's recommendations angered fellow commissioners.

The Independent has seen a letter written by the commission's chief executive, Martin Eastall, explaining Sir John's action, in which he makes it clear that it was done to retain the favour of central government. Mr Eastall wrote to other commissioners: 'The chairman considered that, on balance, this letter was an acceptable price to pay for the increased flexibility and resources that the commission will need next year, and to minimise any appearance of unnecessary friction between the Government and the commission.'

Martin Doughty, leader of Labour-controlled Derbyshire County Council, last night attacked the independence of the commission. 'It was always a political fix in the first place, putting Derbyshire at the head of the queue for local government review. There have been a number of proposals for Derbyshire and John Banham is prepared to go along with the Government until something emerges that the Government wants. This is destroying the independence of the commission and bringing the whole process . . . into disrepute.'

Derbyshire County Council is challenging, in the courts, the way that the commission has acted.

On the day of its final recommendations for the county, Sir John delivered a private letter to ministers saying that the commission could be invited to look again at the area. The letter was immediately published by the Department of the Environment, and Sir John later conceded that he had been asked to write it.

Sir John said last night: 'My letter (to the minister) simply restated the law of the land, as confirmed by the Treasury Solicitor before it was sent. In no sense could it be seen as a compromise of the commission's independence.'

The Department of the Environment said yesterday: 'Ministers have made their support for the independence of the commission quite clear. If they had wanted to review local government by ministerial diktat they could have done so. There is no question of bargaining with the commission over extra resources and flexibility. It was made clear they would get whatever was needed when the new policy guidance was issued, which required an accelerated timetable.'