Councillors urged to avoid 'trench warfare': Local government review chairman accuses councils of 'pressing self-destruct button'

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Indy Politics
LOCAL GOVERNMENT appeared to be pressing 'the self-destruct button' in its reaction to proposed changes in the shape and size of district and county councils, Sir John Banham said yesterday.

Sir John, chairman of the Local Government Commission for England, which is reviewing the changes, warned district councillors that they must rethink their approach, and not simply 'repeat existing arguments at twice the volume'.

The commission proposes creating 25 unitary authorites in place of the existing 75 councils, making savings of pounds 80m a year. An example is the abolishment of Humberside County Council and restoration of the Yorkshire ridings. District councillors have accused the commission of creating a shambles of the review by proposing new councils that are too big and remote from local people.

Addressing the largely hostile audience of the Association of District Councils in Bournemouth, Sir John said that their attitude was 'bad news . . . a prolonged war of attrition between counties and districts, while we all wait for good sense to break out, is deeply unappealing'. He said that it would be better to reflect on where local government was heading. In reply to questions, he said that the public was very good at 'recognising expensive job-preservation societies'.

Sir John said that he was saddened to report that the review was not going as smoothly as he had hoped. There seemed to be no agreement, or even discussion, about what local government should look like in the second decade of the next century.

The counties and districts, he said, could not even agree on the costs of structural alternatives, but regarded the process as an institutional battle. In Derbyshire, county and district differed in their opinions of one option by around pounds 30m a year, equivalent to pounds 90 a household.

He said that there had been challenges to the commission's competence and good faith, criticism of details of their proposals and their presentation, not to mention expensive lobbying - ' pounds 100,000 per lobbyist for each authority in too many cases . . . It is a tragic waste of a great opportunity for local government'.

Sir John said that the commission had to reach conclusions on difficult questions: Was the current balance of power between central and local government stable? Did it make sense to strengthen local government when less than 20 per cent of expenditure was raised locally and residents were not enthusiastic about paying more?

Cost was the 'least important' consideration for the commission. He insisted that new structures would have to be robust enough to withstand social, political and economic changes. 'Any political institution that voters do not understand well, do not generally turn out to vote for, and do not want to pay for, is heading for the history books,' Sir John said.

He concluded: 'There must surely be a better alternative to the expensive bureaucratic trench warfare that seems in prospect, in which the future of local government must inevitably be one of the casualties.'