Pollsters to get council boost

THE OPINION pollsters, strongly criticised by Conservative politicians - among others - for their election predictions, have been provided with a new booming market by the Government.

The polling organisations are to provide the backbone of the information used by its commission that will determine the new structure of local government.

This is part of Conservative plans to shake up local decision-making and get rid of many of the Seventies creations such as Avon and Humberside which have met fierce local resistance.

The Department of the Environment is anxious that the new structures should be acceptable to the bulk of local people.

Local authorities have identified the need to present polling evidence to help bolster their submissions on the shape the reforms should take.

At least one council has commissioned research from Mori, whose findings will be used to make a representation to the new Local Government Commission. This work will be topped up by more research which will be ordered on an ad hoc basis by Sir John Banham's commission when it comes to rule on specific areas.

The commission begins work on 3 August with a review of the functions and structure of the Isle of Wight council. This will be followed by an examination of Derbyshire in early September, extending to all areas in England over the next four years.

Kent confirmed last week that it had commissioned preliminary research on attitudes towards the county, although the commission is not due to examine the area for another two years. Kent and its districts will attempt to agree a joint proposal for reform to put to the Commission. It is likely to be a compromise, with some districts or groups of districts being given independence from the county.

Ministers have ruled that there should be no preferred model for local government, opening the prospect of a patchwork of districts and counties. That is interpreted as a different emphasis from that given by the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, who favoured the creation of unitary authorities based on districts.

A spokesman for the commission said that several sources of information would be tapped, including census information showing the relationship between home and place of work. Qualitative market research - where a small group of people are questioned closely on attitudes to a range of subjects - will also be used, although no budget has been assigned for polling work. These methods have been pioneered by the political parties as a mechanism for testing strengths and weakenesses of policies and messages.

However, the spokesman added that the commission would treat findings with 'considerable caution', especially if used to back a council's case. Poll findings presented by local councils would be given greater credence if they had been produced by reputable firms and used large samples.

The spokesman added: 'We shall be aware of all the risks of loaded questions, dodgy samples and the order in which questions are asked.'

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