Letter: Change based on moderation

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The Independent Online
Sir: Nicholas Schoon ('Historic counties to lose fight for life', 5 September) states that the final outcome of the current local government review will be the continuation of the two-tier structure in places 'but new unitary councils predominating'.

That is a very large assumption at this stage of the review. Extensive public consultation on structural options is under way in 32 of the 39 county areas. Retention of a two-tier structure is a specific option of the Local Government Commission in the great majority of these. What happens next depends to an appreciable extent, and quite rightly, on the public response. Some new 'unitary' authorities will no doubt be recommended, as for example the commission's proposal of a new unitary authority for the City of Derby, where there is solid public support and it can be shown that services will not suffer unduly. A new unitary authority for the Isle of Wight has been approved by Parliament but, as of now, no other change proposals are before either House.

It is, of course, for those advocating new unitary authorities to demonstrate that the case for change has been made. On the evidence to date this has not been done across shire England as a whole. The Local Government Commission's own research shows that people are mainly concerned about service quality and responsiveness. There is growing concern that the fragmentation of the 90 per cent of local services provided by county councils is likely to mean a worse deal for the public.

Nobody has yet explained why a new structure which would require inter-authority joint committees to run some key services would be more accountable than the present structure of autonomous authorities. And the Government has made clear that the one-off costs of wholesale change, estimated at pounds 1bn, would have to be met locally.

All of this suggests that the right approach to structural change is one based on moderation and pragmatism: change where it is needed and justified but otherwise leave well alone.

Yours faithfully,

ROBIN WENDT

Secretary

Association of County Councils

London, SW1

5 September

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