Resist the Government's latest proposals to waste our money on another Local Government Reorganisation : 18 December 2005

They’re at it again. Our Whitehall mandarins will never learn – after all, the man in Whitehall always knows best, doesn’t he?

They tried to reorganise Local Government in 1996. We went through a hugely expensive consultation process, and at the end of it we were supposed to get better services from bigger authorities at less cost. Did it work? Well, we all know what happened to York, when that city swallowed all its surrounding suburbs and Green Belt in 1996, don’t we? The city’s population almost doubled; it’s Council Tax had to increase; North Yorkshire lost income from a densely populated part of the County, and so the Council Tax went up everywhere else within the County to compensate, and, of course, we all had to pay out of our Council Tax for the nebulous advantages of setting up York as a “unitary” authority in a reorganisation which few people wanted to the tune of £4M. It was an occasion where nobody gained anything.

Since 1996, I understand studies have shown that, generally speaking, most of the new “unitary” authorities perform less well than the “two-tier” system they replaced.

Then we had the Regional Government proposals. At first, many of us thought this would be good, as Central Government would at last hand down and devolve power from the centre to the regions. Then the truth emerged. Instead of central government handing power down, the new Regional authorities were due to take over many of the functions and powers of local government, and the price of getting regional government was the merger of existing local authorities into bigger and more remote unitary councils. The matter was fortunately put to the vote, and to the greatest surprise of our national politicians, the public rejected the proposals by an overwhelming majority.

By this time, Councils were not unnaturally concerned about their future. So John Prescott’s department was asked if Councils should anticipate another reorganisation in the near future or whether they could plan ahead on the basis of the status quo. John Prescott’s office sent a written assurance to the effect that no further reorganisation was planned. That was about a year ago.

The trouble with British politics is that policy changes every time there is a change of minister, and now the present minister, Mr. David Miliband, in an article, has started asking exactly the same questions and raising exactly the same issues as those which were debated before the 1996 reorganisation. He’s ordered his own local government review.

We are being told yet again that two-tier systems are inefficient and confusing, and in spite of the evidence and experience of all previous reorganisations, that bigger councils will be less remote from the voters and more cost effective.

The review is, of course, to be restricted to the 34 “two-tier” English counties, which neatly avoids having to answer difficult questions about the incompetence, inefficiencies and corruption and the extraordinarily high levels of Council tax which are normally associated in the minds of the public with big metropolitan or unitary authorities – and not with the rural counties. However this does not stop the energetic Mr. Miliband from making a comparison between Birmingham and Kent – purely because they both have the same population! Now this must be an interesting question for our man in Whitehall: can he explain why these two parts of the country are so alike that Birmingham should be compared with Kent or Kent with Birmingham?

There is one matter which Mr. Miliband’s article completely ignores, and that is the issue of democracy – the ability of local people to take decisions on matters which affect their own communities. Isn’t it strange how determined the Blair government is to bring democracy to Iraq, whilst our democratic rights and liberties at home are steadily eroded, as decision making is taken further and further away from the communities they affect? Just imagine what might happen if Ryedale, Hambleton and Scarborough were merged, and, for example, it was decided that there should be a single car parking tariff for the whole of such a diverse district!

We are advised not to make a “knee jerk” reaction to the forthcoming review. The truth is that this is just another attempt to achieve regionalisation, and concentrate even more power into the hands of central government, so that the UK becomes a kind of corporate state. There is no need to go back over arguments which have failed in the past. These proposals should be vigorously resisted at all levels immediately, and the task of reorganisation made as difficult as possible. Blair’s government, like the bullies they are, might then turn their attention to other matters, where there is less resistance.

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