The County Council Merger Bid must NOT succeed - 18th April 2007  

For the third time in ten years, Local Government in North Yorkshire is faced with the prospect of spending millions of pounds on totally unproductive work which will benefit absolutely nobody. I am talking about North Yorkshire County Council’s takeover bid.


To a certain extent, one has to sympathise with County. In 1996 they were faced with a predatory bid by the districts, backed by Whitehall Mandarins, to merge with each other and take over County services. In 2004, John Prescott, again with the backing of the same mandarins, promoted the idea of abolishing the shire counties in favour of smaller merged districts, as part of his regionalisation policy. Fortunately both these assaults on local democracy largely failed, but one can imagine the impact on County Hall. So, it should be no surprise that, when faced with the prospect of another White Paper, County has decided to make a pre-emptive strike: however they may present their case, one has to ask if the real reason for the bid is more for their own self-preservation than for any real or imagined benefit to the people they are supposed to serve.


The trouble with National Government and their civil service advisors is that they can never accept that one size does not necessarily fit all. Because they run a National Government, they foolishly believe that cities should be run like the country and counties, like cities. That is why “cabinet or executive” government has been imposed in country areas, where it is far from appropriate. That is why there is so much pressure for rural areas to merge into larger single tier authorities. That is how all the three main political parties have largely succeeded in politicising all levels of local government.


The White Paper under which the County bid is made (“Strong and Prosperous Communities”) is mainly concerned with the big cities – not rural areas like Ryedale or North Yorkshire. The kind of issues which the White Paper seeks to address are symptomatic of places where individual councillors represent sometimes more than 5,000 voters and voter turnout for local elections is low, crime drugs and unemployment are high, there are large numbers of “ethnicities” and a considerable “multicultural” element, schools perform badly, and Council estates are decaying, vandalised and badly managed. In short, the White Paper is primarily concerned with conurbations with large neglected inner city areas.


The White Paper’s answer to the problems it addresses is, in effect, to bring local administration closer to the community it serves, which is exactly the opposite to what the County’s bid is likely to achieve. So it is astonishing that the County bid has got so far.


Indeed, there is a strange paradox: for the Cities, the White Paper encourages the setting up a multiplicity and diversity of tenant groups, residents’ associations, and even new parish, town and community Councils – all with the purpose of getting people involved in the community and encouraging the emergence of new “community leaders” , while at the same time the White Paper questions the diverse and multiple structure of local government in the countryside which actually seems to achieve the very same objectives as the government would like to achieve in the cities.


Can you imagine what it will be like if the County’s bid succeeds? All the most important decisions will be made in Northallerton, by a single party “cabinet” of only nine elected members on the advice of officers who live at or near Northallerton. There will be limited delegation to Area Committees, whose discretion will be tightly circumscribed by the policies written by the officials who know best in Northallerton. Town and Parish Councils may have just a little more power than they have at the moment. This may be good for some of the larger town councils – the rest will struggle to cope with their new responsibilities.


And what if the people don’t like a County decision? Suppose, for example, the County were to decide on a uniform charging rate for all car parks? It was a hard enough job to get this changed in Ryedale, but it would be virtually impossible for any representative group to take on the County and win.


And will it cost less? I have been involved in local government since 1973, and have seen many reorganisations in that time. All of them were going to cost the rate payers less and none of them did. If anybody really believes that the County’s proposals will save money, they will be disappointed.


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