'No blueprint' for unitary authorities

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The Government yesterday indicated that it had no national blueprint for unitary local government authorities.

Fears that single authorities would be imposed throughout England before the next general election diminished when John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, rejected key recommendations on the restructuring of local councils. The Local Government Commission was set up in 1991 to review the county and district councils in England and to decide if re-organisation was necessary.

So far the Government's only decisions have been over the Isle of Wight and Cleveland, where the commission's recommendations of unitary authorities were accepted.

The commission will deliver its reorganisation recommendations on 9 of the remaining 32 shires today.

Yesterday, Mr Gummer announced in a Commons answer that Avon County Council -in line with the commission's recommendations - will be replaced by four unitary authorities. For Somerset the commission had recommended three unitary authorities. But Mr Gummer said that after 'taking into account the number and strength of opposition', he had decided to retain the two-tier structure.

On Humberside the commission had recommended the abolition of the county council and the county of Humberside in favour of four unitary authorities.

Subject to 'minor modifications', Mr Gummer will follow this option.

Lincolnshire's two-tier structure will be left untouched.

For North Yorkshire, where abolition of the county council was recommended with the existing eight districts combined to form three unitary authorities, Mr Gummer said he accepted the commission's view that the City of York should become a unitary authority. However, again in view of 'strong representations', he said the present two-tier system will remain.

Mr Gummer said that his decisions now meant that England, from April 1996, would have nine further unitary authorities. He said that local people in these areas would enjoy the benefits that unitary authorities brought, including 'improved accountability and an understanding of where responsibility for services lies'.

However, the Government has clearly felt pressures from some areas where resistance to further change has been judged to be more hostile than anticipated. When the commission was set up in 1991 unitary authorities were regarded within government circles as the future of efficient local government. Mr Gummer's decisions yesterday appear to indicate a weakening of that position.

Constitutional proposals for a Scottish parliament were published in Edinburgh yesterday. A report, commissioned by the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention, proposes a 112-member body, elected using the additional member voting system.

The 112-strong parliament would, the report says, 'take responsibility for all areas of policy presently within the remit of the Scottish Office'. The executive of the new assembly would assume the duties of the Secretary of State for Scotland, but Westminster would retain responsibility for foreign affairs, defence, social security and economic policy.