Leading Article: Wait and see on local government

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The Independent Online
SIR JOHN BANHAM is too skilled a diplomat to say so, but he must be furious. Last year he was given the job of setting up and running a 14-member commission to look into English local government. Yet, with his work still far from done, the Government has begun to interfere. In the subtle ways beloved of Whitehall, it is trying to make him come up with the answers that it wants to hear.

This is unwelcome but unsurprising. The last Conservative prime minister who gave local government any respect was Lord Salisbury, who deplored 'the excessive and exaggerated powers' of central government. Margaret Thatcher and John Major, by contrast, have been unashamed centralisers; the observation of the Widdicombe report, that local councils are 'the statutory creations of Parliament, and have no independent status or right to exist', is as sadly true today as it was when written in 1986.

Sir John and his colleagues cannot change that. What they can do is to look at how the structure of local government measures up, and suggest how to improve it. Unfortunately, the two principles that should guide the commission - making local government more efficient, and making it more accountable to its electors - are often contradictory.

Efficiency almost always implies the replacing of the present two- tier system, with its confusing division of responsibilities between district and county councils, with a single tier of big authorities. This prevents wasteful duplication of work, and offers economies of scale. But voters dislike it: the turnout for district council elections is consistently between 6 and 9 per cent higher than for elections to the larger county councils.

History is on the counties' side. The English counties predate the Norman Conquest. They have a place in the hearts of many citizens: two decades after the disastrous 1974 reforms, people are still sufficiently exercised about such unpopular new entities as Humberside to write to Sir John and his commission urging their abolition.

The Banham commission's first three reports have raised some eyebrows in Whitehall. The commission has prescribed the creation of a new unitary authority in the Isle of Wight but left two-tier authorities in place across large parts of Durham and Derbyshire. In Cleveland, it chose an option that promises financial savings only half those that might have been achieved; in Durham, the commission's conclusions may actually add pounds 2m a year to costs, as well as incurring a transitional bill of pounds 5m.

Yet the Government would be wrong to believe that the Banham commission has listened too much to local lobbies and gone native. The reports are rigorous, well-argued and based on respectable opinion polls. In reaching different conclusions in different cases, they resist the centralising temptation to impose a grand plan from the outset. Ministers may hope that the commission will find more financial savings in the 35 reports still to come. But rather than undermining Sir John now, they should wait and see whether his final conclusions are more to their taste.