Thursday, July 26, 2007

So much for the new localism

Local government reform is a notoriously difficult area and one in which you are inevitably going to end up upsetting one group or another. But I for one am surprised by the thrust of the latest proposals for unitary councils announced this week.

This government - both before and after the Blair-Brown handover - has made great play of its commitment to "new localism," and to devolving decision-making down to the lowest possible level. So it is disappointing that the big losers in this week's plans seem to be the district councils rather than the counties.

Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire county councils will all become giant all-purpose authorities, with the districts in those areas disappearing. Two other county councils - Cheshire and Bedfordshire - will cease to exist in their current form, but other large single-purpose authorities will be created in those areas.

Why is the government doing this? Well, larger authorities tend to cost the taxpayer less, both in terms of administrative overheads and through economies of scale. I think what this goes to show is that when push comes to shove, governments will always put saving money before the importance of local democracy.

There may be another, less obvious explanation, and that is that the government is seeking to compensate for the loss of the regional assemblies whose abolition was announced the week before last. This will require the creation of "joint boards" of local authorities to oversee region-wide functions such as transport planning, and this will be far simpler with two or three counties than with 15-20 districts.

If I am right about this, it is surely another example of the operation of the law of unintended consequences - how abolishing an admittedly unpopular regional tier of governance actually ends up not bringing decision-making closer to the people, but taking it further away.

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4 comments:

skipper said...

Agree this is retrograde. Sweden has devolved services to locality level with great success according to my mate who is a councillor in Uppsala and France, not to mention most other EU countries, has much smaller administrative areas then we have.

Toque said...

I cannot believe that Ming is currently leading your poll. Are the Lib Dems blind as well as stupid?

media scum said...

And for those of us on Teesside this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, as we are still left with four small and struggling unitaries when all common sense and reason should argue for a Teesside wide authrity. Howver, John Banham had received his orders from the Tories, and - aided and abetted by people like Peter Mandelson - he carved up a natural economic and social unit into four disparate parts, all of which had to then construct and run unweildy 'joint arrangements' and become prey to power drunk quangios seeking to extend their remits.

Bryan McGrath said...

Paul, your belief in the new age Gordon Brown is indeed touching.

Unitary councils have been around for over twelve years now, I am not aware of any evidence from, say, the National Audit Office indicating a better performance from unitary authorities compared with the county/district arrangement. The new proposals claim a saving of £150M when reducing 46 councils to 11.
The councils have to propose savings that can be redirected to frontline services, otherwise the proposals would not be accepted: it does not follow that the savings are anything other than “pie in the sky”.

Gordon talks the talk of ‘new localism’ but remains a Stalinist control freak down to his “son of the manse" branding.