The 1974 disasters, Part II: Another patchwork reshuffle is the last thing local councils need, warns Christian Wolmar

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People seem to get het up about their local council only when plans are afoot to abolish it. The recent correspondence on our Letters page, started by a group of district council chief executives, shows that passions are running high about the future of local government, which is currently subject to a review by the Local Government Commission headed by Sir John Banham.

The 164 chief executives who initiated the correspondence represent less than half of all English districts. Feeling that they were losing the propaganda war over the reorganisation process, they tossed in a grenade with their suggestion that single-tier authorities - where one council delivers all local services - were the best solution, rather than the present system of districts and counties.

Taken at face value, the argument for single-tier authorities is a strong one. The notion that one authority should provide all local services, making it easier for people to know exactly where to go to make use of them, is attractive. But it is not so simple. Having one big local council does not mean that finding services will necessarily be that straightforward. There will have to be local offices, not each of which will be able to house all the various services by itself.

There are two further problems. First, local areas do not necessarily fit into equal units of, say, 200,000 people, which makes a viable authority. Second, they are not starting with a blank sheet. There is an existing structure of local government to which people are attached, as Sir John Banham has found to his cost. The green welly brigade, which is still fighting for the restoration of Rutland and the Yorkshire Ridings 20 years after their demise, has emerged en force in Somerset, which the Commission reckons should be dismembered. Residents have been spurred into instant action, prompting all four local Tory MPs (including David Heathcoat- Amory, a Foreign Office minister, and Tom King, a former cabinet minister) to pledge their support for retaining the county council.

Abolishing the 'historic' counties, while appearing to make sense in terms of administration, will cause popular uprisings in several areas. Local protests may not have registered in the London-based media, but regional papers are full of the fights to save various local authorities which face the Local Government Commission's axe.

Many local government experts also remain unconvinced about the value of single-tier authorities. John Stewart, professor of Local Government at Birmingham University, says: 'The case for unitary authorities is unproved. Nowhere else in the world has them and, contrary to conventional wisdom, most people do understand where services come from at the moment. Unitary authorities have to be big and that means they are remote.' In calling for single-tier authorities, the chief executives are hardly independent observers. Not only are they fighting for their jobs, but the subtext of their argument is that their authorities, rather than the counties, would become the single tier.

When Sir John's commission started work two years ago, the case for single-tier authorities seemed to be getting the better of the argument. This was partly because the commission began by examining the Isle of Wight. Here, the commission's suggestion that there should be a unitary authority for the island was uncontentious and met with universal approval.

Once Sir John hit the mainland, however, there were bound to be problems. His remit was to look first at the three unpopular counties created in 1974 - Cleveland, Avon and Humberside - and their neighbours. More controversially, Derbyshire was thrown into the first tranche. Derbyshire is the GLC of the Midlands, with a left-leaning council that has been reviled by local Tory MPs. Nevertheless it is a real place, a county with 1,000 years of tradition and even a county cricket team. Abolition would be controversial. Indeed, the Commission's own Mori survey found that 39 per cent of respondents favoured the status quo, and the next most popular option (out of six) attracted only 11 per cent of support.

In March, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, rejected the Commission's recommendation that Gloucestershire should retain the existing structure. He had to. As protesters in Somerset were quick to point out when Sir John recommended the status quo in Gloucestershire: 'What's good enough for Gloucestershire is good enough for us.'

In fact, Mr Gummer has rejected three out of the four reviews that have included two-tier systems in their findings and has yet to make a decision on the fourth. The exercise seems to have become a game of ping-pong with local authorities as the ball.

The Commission has consulted widely in each area, but as few understand the current situation, or what 'unitary' or 'two-tier' authorities are, it is a somewhat pointless exercise. Ask people if they want unitary authorities and the answer, by a two-to-one majority, will be yes. But once they are asked about what shape they want those authorities to be, they retrench and decide they want the status quo after all. They hate the new creations of the 1974 reorganisation, both the districts and the three counties, and hanker after the Ridings and the Rutlands. The dead hand of history is a barrier to any change.

So Sir John grits his teeth and ploughs on, but his task appears impossible. Even he accepts that he cannot please everyone, especially given the current emphasis on unitary councils. He told the Independent: 'There is no unitary authority solution that would enjoy local support and be acceptable to Parliament as well as reflecting long-term needs.'

The root of the difficulty is that the 1974 changes began the process of separating local government from the people by creating a number of hybrid district councils with no organic roots in the community, with names like Shepway, Babergh and Dacorum. The rationale behind this was the perceived impossibility of sustaining certain small councils. In France, however, they get round this problem by encouraging authorities to make voluntary joint arrangements for the provision of certain services, while remaining separate for others and retaining their unique local identities, mayors and all.

Twenty years on, these new councils are old enough to have built up vestiges of support among the professionals - the local authority workers and councillors - as our Letters page illustrates, but their bases are insufficiently grounded in historic communities to have earned the affection of local people. It is difficult to imagine that anyone, even in 100 years' time, will ever love or feel they belong to Waverley or Waveney.

Even Sir John is doubtful about the core reason for reorganisation, the supposed efficiency savings that could be made: 'Any reorganisation costs more and delivers less than its proponents suggest.' He reckons that it would cost pounds 50- pounds 60 for every household, more than pounds 1bn in total, to create a new structure of local government for the whole country. Despite his own doubts, however, he argues that the money would be recouped through greater efficiency.

The starting point for any reorganisation should not be some arcane debate about efficiency savings or 'optimum service delivery points' but whether the chosen local authority area is an organic extension of the existing community. This is a test that most products of the 1974 reorganisation would fail.

Local government is a precious flower. It is not merely about administration, but is an integral part of democracy. Britain hardly has a surfeit of that, given our unelected second chamber, an increasing number of powers being lost to Europe and a proliferation of quangos, some created as a result of previous local government reorganisations such as the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC.

Sir John, who is leaving the Commission at the end of the year - the deadline for the review - is aware of the limitations, and even the dangers, of the Commission's work. It is time to call a halt.

He started out with the slogan 'If it ain't bust, don't fix it'. While local government may need some fixing, there is no drastic urgency. The last thing it needs is a patchwork reorganisation, draining yet more resources and energy from both elected members and officers. The poor state of local government, battered by 15 years of cuts and increased centralisation including the setting of all budgets by the Department of the Environment, means that around the country all the main parties have had difficulty dredging up sufficient candidates to stand in the forthcoming local government elections.

As the chief executives who wrote to the Independent should realise, another botched reorganisation will be the last straw for both councils and councillors - and for local democracy as a whole.

(Photographs omitted)

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