Redrawn shires map an expensive success

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Indy Politics
A bruised and defensive Local Government Commission yesterday claimed to have succeeded in its two-and-a-half-year, £15m exercise in redrawing the administrative map of shire England.

The commission's acting chairman, Professor Malcolm Grant, who stepped in after Sir John Banham was sacked by John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said the Government had accepted the overwhelming majority of its recommendations for reform.

The commission, which published its final report yesterday, believes the Government has caved in to a late rush of lobbying, much of it from Tory MPs.

The commissioners feel their greatest achievement has been to save county councils and the two-tier structure of local government across most of England's 39 shire counties.

The Government had begun the review hoping most county councils would be abolished, with all-purpose, unitary councils taking over. Such councils already exist in England's seven largest conurbations.

Professor Grant made clear that he and the other commissioners resented the sacking of Sir John, former director general of the CBI. ``There was dismay at the fact and the manner of his departure,'' he said. He and the other commissioners had made listening to what local people wanted their top priority. "The outcome of the review owes much to Sir John's vision and his sturdy independence."

Sir John was asked to quit because of Mr Gummer's unhappiness with several of the commission's recommendations, and his wish to have another round of reviews for more than a dozen larger towns.

The Government's latest thinking is to see if such towns as Blackburn, Blackpool, Exeter, Peterborough, Norwich and Northampton should be served by unitary councils covering the full range of local government functions. The county councils in charge of social services and education would withdraw, but keep their functions in the rural remainder of their areas. The only county councils to be abolished are Berkshire, Avon, Cleveland and Humberside.

The proposals go back to the system that existed before the last big reorganisation 21 years ago. But the commission confirmed that the Government's latest plans would add to council running costs at a time when local services are under unprecedented financial strain.

Dr Chris Game, a local government expert at Birmingham University, said the review had become an object lesson in irrational policy-making. ``It has cost a very substantial amount of money, a lot of time on the part of senior council officers, and a great deal of anguish and dispute between councils.''

Sir David Cooksey, head of the Audit Commission, will take over as chairman of the Local Government Commission in July.