Gummer riding high for a fall on Goole

Jonathan Foster reports on a port that knows its place. Or did, until a minister struck
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Indy Politics
Goole spoke yesterday, and the ears on John Gummer must have burnt. The Secretary of State for the Environment has the inland port on his conscience and in his pending tray since a much-vaunted review of local government left it high and dry.

The Gummer map of English councils, an increasingly confused piece of cartography, abolished Humberside, where Goole had remained resentfully since a previous Tory government plucked it out of Yorkshire 21 years ago.

With a stroke of a marker pen 200 miles away in London, Humberside was broken into three new councils and Goole was coupled with Selby, the equivalent of asking Mr Gummer to share a hotel room with a woman priest.

Goole has sat on the banks of the Ouse only since 1826, when a canal made it a major port for the West Riding's woollens and coal. Its brief prosperity was the result of Tom Bartholomew's patented "Tom Puddings", canal "trains" which brought coal for easy loading on to coasters. Mr Gummer is now seen locally as something of a pudding.

There is no ecumenical feeling toward Selby, and the alienation is mutual. Selby, with its abbey and its agrarian estates, is posh; Goole, its derricks jutting out of the arable landscape like dissenting spires, is blue-collar. Selby Conservatives were particularly alarmed by the proposed map. Apart from sharing resources with 18,000 Goole riff-raff, the new council could mean a revised Westminster constituency, Goole's staunch Labour vote making life awkward for Michael Alison, Selby's erstwhile comfortable Tory MP.

Mr Gummer moved swiftly to keep Goole out of Selby - and out of anywhere else until "wide-ranging local consultations" have been completed. The Goole Times & Chronicle, a sceptical observer of Tory map-making, asked its readers where their unwanted town should go. One reader sought anschluss with Scunthorpe; lured by pensioners' bus passes, 13 per cent favoured creating a Greater Doncaster, but 73 per cent in the poll published yesterday opted for another of Mr Gummer's creations, the nascent East Riding council.

"I think people are punch drunk from it now. Only lip service has been paid to the principle of consultation," Peter Stanley, the Times editor, said. The paper is neutral, although he thinks the town should consider opting out of government altogether, like Pimlico in the Ealing comedy, or Danzig: "We could be a free port."

Goole's problems are not unique. Reorganisation of many English shires has brought ancient and modern local difficulties to light. Mr Gummer's change from North Yorkshire to North Riding will cost an estimated £1m in new signwriting, plus irritable and confused citizens wondering where their next home help is coming from.

"He's created a North and an East Riding," one Goole man complained. "Riding means one-third. So the Tories have cut Yorkshire by 33 per cent."