The dangers of Regionalisation for local rural democracy : 16 August 2002

So, what steps should be taken to prepare for Labour's regionalisation plans?

In previous Ryeview articles, I have argued that, whilst the principle of making regional government democratically accountable is good, the effect of Labour's plans will be the suppression of local rural democracy. In fact, their plans can be described as a Trojan horse designed to make us lower our defences against another wasteful, unnecessary and demoralising reorganisation of local government, under which Ryedale will combine with Hambleton and Scarborough to become part of a Greater Scarborough Authority. I have also shown how successive governments, both Conservative and Labour with the active encouragement of their Whitehall mandarins, have contributed to the steady erosion of local democracy, to the extent that Councils up and down the country now have to delegate all the important decisions to single party "cabinets" or "executives", which meet in secret. Anyone who thinks this system is an improvement should look at the mess that Hull City Council's Labour "executive" got itself into after squandering a hundred million pounds in three years, without letting councillors or the press know what was going on. The Regional Assembly and the Greater Scarborough Authority will, of course, also be managed by private sessions of single party "executives".

So, one hopes that these unnecessary and wasteful plans will be successfully opposed. However, as a lawyer, I am trained to advise clients to prepare for the worst possible scenario. So let us consider what might happen and how realistic this worst possible scenario could be.

By far the greater proportion of the population of the Yorkshire and Humberside Region inhabit the urban conurbations of Hull, Grimsby, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield, which are traditional Labour strongholds. So, it would not be surprising if the Labour Party in these urban areas takes the view that, even with proportional representation, their urban preponderance should give a Labour Party "executive" a perpetual monopoly of power within the Regional Assembly, and that this might give them the opportunity of offloading some of their urban problems into the countryside.Now, if Labour advises its supporters to vote for Labour's regional proposals, or to respond positively to any sham public consultation, the smaller population of the larger rural areas will be outvoted, and will have to acquiesce. North Yorkshire will be abolished and Ryedale and Hambleton will be absorbed by the new Greater Scarborough. Is this worst case scenario realistic? I think so.

Once the decision is taken, central government will freeze all the assets of the constituent councils of the new Greater Scarborough Authority.

Now Ryedale still has the 6M it realised from the sale of its council houses. This was not just a windfall. Ryedale's council houses were paid for out of loans taken out by the council and the interest on the loans was paid for out of rates and rents. As time elapsed, the capital value of the houses increased and the 6M is the equivalent of the equity left on any mortgage after the repayment of the loan. That equity belongs to the people of Ryedale and to no-one else. It should be spent on worthwhile projects in the district which will continue to benefit Ryedale people long after the demise of Ryedale District Council. This equity should not be allowed to fall into the reserves of a Greater Scarborough Authority, where it would doubtless be used to defray the cost of coast protection work on the harbour and Marine Parade, instead of, perhaps, on flood prevention in Ryedale. Our 6M nestegg should not be treated as "an attractive dowry" for union with another council, as councillor Keith Knaggs suggested three years ago.

There are many worthwhile projects within Ryedale on which the money could be spent. These range from the building of a school sports hall for joint use with the public and the repair or reconstruction of the Derwent Pool to the grant aiding of schemes to provide skateboard parks or speed cushions for villages which want them.

Remember the Rosedale sewerage scheme, which gave that village modern facilities. I wonder how many other villages might benefit from this kind of scheme.

So, what about the floods? Don't expect any help from the new Region - the last time this was requested, a proposed 33% increase in the flood prevention levy was cut to 10% by the dominant Labour members representating the big conurbations on the " Regional Flood Defence Committee of the Consultative Body", so that only a partial flood prevention scheme could be implemented, and many areas outside Malton/Norton, including Pickering, were left out. We've just had the floods back again. So why wait and see how these new defences work this winter? Why not appoint a firm of civil engineers now, and ask them to give the council an assessment and analysis of the schemes proposed and under way, and inform the public so that there can be a proper debate based on reason rarther than suspicion and emotion? If it turns out that the defences can be enhanced, part of the 6M could be spent on this.

What about Malton Hospital? This was always under threat from Conservative governments, and is now threatened by Labour's plans. If Ryedale disappears, could a Greater Scarborough Authority be expected to give its future any priority? Public investment now could prolong its life, and the council has money to spend on it.

The council has saved its brass for too long. It has jealously guarded the 6M reserve like a hoard of buried treasure. The moment of truth has arrived: if the treasure is left in the ground, others will dig it up, and Ryedale people will lose out. The time has come to wake up our councillors and shake them into action. Show them that we are not interested in their factional backbiting and petty squabbles. Tell them to stop pontificating. The time has come to urge them to put our money where their mouth is.

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