Rethink 'possible' on councils: Ngaio Crequer looks at the continuing uncertainty besetting local government

IN A volte-face, Sir John Banham, chairman of the Local Government Commission for England, last night said he could change recommendations he had announced only hours earlier for local government reorganisation.

At 10am yesterday, Sir John revealed final recommendations for Derbyshire and Co Durham, and said large rural areas should still be governed by two-tier authorities, because residents did not want change.

But in the afternoon he suggested to ministers that his commission might be asked to think again. In a letter to John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, he said: 'The commission is disappointed not to be able to recommend unitary structures for the rural areas of Derbyshire and Co Durham. If new joint proposals for unitary structures are now put forward in those areas . . . you may wish to invite the commission to consider these.'

The proposals made for reforming local government in England were always likely to incur the Government's wrath by not going far enough. There has been strong Tory pressure for unitary authorities.

The Local Government Commission for England had bowed to some pressure - but not all - in arriving yesterday at final proposals for Derbyshire, Cleveland and Co Durham. It is a mixed bag of new authorities and the status quo. But the Government will be unhappy that they do not transform council structures.

In Derbyshire the commission has proposed unitary authorities for Derby and for North-east Derbyshire. For the rest of the county, there should be no change to the existing two-tier structure.

The commission has stuck to its earlier proposal that Cleveland County Council should be abolished. It has recommended five new unitary authorities for Darlington, Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough, and Redcar and Cleveland. Outside Darlington, there should be no change to the existing two-tier structure for Co Durham.

Sir John Banham, chairman of the Local Government Commission for England, said they had proposed 'no change' for largely rural areas of Co Durham and Derbyshire because residents preferred the two-tier system.

'What we are determined to do is introduce and recommend unitary authorities where they enjoy local support. What we cannot do is to make recommendations for unitary authorities which are plainly not supported by local people.'

The Association of District Councils said the Government should reject both the Derbyshire and Co Durham recommendations. Margaret Singh, the chair of the association, said: 'Patching together a mongrel two-tier system for parts of these areas would lead to continued conflict.'