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Six shires likely to survive review: Local Government Commission backs arguments for status quo

Recommendations delivered yesterday by the commission reviewing local government in England make it likely that most traditional county boundaries will survive.

As the Local Government Commission delivered its recommendations for nine shires yesterday, its role was attacked by opposition politicians, who said the two-year review had been a waste of time and money. Six authorities were recommended to be left unaltered, one to retain much of its structure and only two - Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire - to be replaced by unitary all-purpose authorities.

The 'no change' authorities were Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Kent and Oxfordshire. In Hampshire, new unitary authorities were recommended for the New Forest, Portsmouth and Southampton. But in the rest of the region, the present two- tier system was recommended to be retained.

It will now be up to the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, to decide whether to accept the commission's favoured options. He can overrule the commission and retain the status quo, as he did with some of its recommendations on Tuesday.

The commission's chairman, Sir John Banham, said the latest proposals would result in more unitary councils, bringing the population served by such councils to 4.2 million. He accepted that that there had been 'substantial opposition' to change in certain areas, and the commission's recommendations reflected it.

Sir John indicated that although the blueprint on single all-purpose authorities might have been revised, it had not been thrown out. He said: 'There are widely acknowledged weaknesses in the existing two-tier system.'

Yesterday, Labour-controlled Humberside, which is to be abolished, said it would continue its legal battle to be retained. It will attempt to secure a judicial review of Mr Gummer's decision.

There were also indications yesterday that Mr Gummer could face further legal opposition if he backs the commission's decision on Buckinghamshire.

The council chairman, Kenneth Ross, said fewer than one in five people supported the four-council proposal while more than 35 per cent said the existing councils did not need reorganising. He said the proposals would damage public services.

In Bedfordshire, the council's chief executive, Dennis Cleggett, said the proposals for three new unitary councils would be a 'costly, bureaucratic and disastrous for many local services'.

The entire review of all 39 shires and 296 districts was attacked by the shadow Environment Secretary, Frank Dobson. 'After months of wrangling and court cases which have distracted attention and funds from services for local people, what is now proposed leaves two-thirds of counties unchanged.

What a waste of time and money,' he said.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, who is MP for Yeovil, attacked Mr Gummer's decision on Tuesday to retain the status quo in Somerset: 'The whole inquiry has been exposed as a charade. The Government has shown complete contempt for public opinion, which clearly wanted unitary councils which would have brought local government closer to the people.'

Yesterday the executive committee of the Association of District Councils decided unanimously to seek a meeting with the Prime Minister to express its concerns over the restructuring so far.

Before the end of the year the commission will deliver its verdict on the 23 remaining shires. The Government's aim is to make all the changes by April 1996, but they are unlikely to go ahead without more opposition.