Goodbye to the counties in four years

THE Government has given its clearest hint yet that any change in the structure of local government in England's 34 shires, including Essex and Suffolk, will be brought in within the next four years.

By Graham Dines

THE Government has given its clearest hint yet that any change in the structure of local government in England's 34 shires, including Essex and Suffolk, will be brought in within the next four years.

However, David Miliband, who is in charge of regions and communities in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, told regional newspaper journalists yesterday that no single solution would be imposed - it would be up to councillors and local people to agree how they want to be governed.

This consultation approach is in sharp contrast with the last major review of councils in 1972 by Edward Heath's government, when county boroughs such as Ipswich were merged with counties, which took over responsibility for all strategic services such as education, highways, and social care.

Now the Government is keen to introduce larger all-purpose councils in the shires, on the model of the unitary authorities in the north and midlands introduced by the Tories in the 1980s after the abolition of metropolitan counties.

“The debate taking place in the 34 counties is about what is the right model of local government for the 21st Century,” said Mr Miliband. “There are three key aspects of that - genuine neighbourhood flexibility, strong strategic leadership, and value for money with efficiency.

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“In the case of the shire counties, it is right to ask if the current system of two tier councils - three if you include parishes - deliver all that.

“It is not about the counties gobbling up districts or the districts knocking out counties. There is a balance to be struck on how you get neighbourhood representation and strong strategic leadership.”

Mr Miliband said: “This is not about the OPDM getting its map out and then carving up England - it is local ideas about how people can be better governed.

“The Government will make clear its position in the Local Government White Paper in June but the future governance of England isn't just a matter for Whitehall - it is for local councillors and local people to have their say.”

He added: “If change is going to happen, the strong view from people in local government is it shouldn't be dragged out over years with independent reviews. But the important thing to stress is that if it happens in one place, it need not occur elsewhere.”

Mr Miliband refused to give any indication on what size of population the new councils should administer. “The arithmetic can get in the way, but the smaller the unit the tougher it is to pass the test of strategic leadership and value for money.”

This suggests that at the very least reorganisation will see the merger of smaller district councils such as Maldon and Uttlesford in Essex and Forest Heath and Mid Suffolk with one or more of their neighbouring councils.

However, consultation is at the heart of the Government's timetable. “The agenda the ODPM is taking forward is essentially about places - neighbourhoods, towns and cities, regions and how different policies impact on them.

“It a double deal for devolution - yes, we must devolve powers from central government to local government, but we also need devolution from local government to local people, on such issues as social care budgets and regeneration.”

It is expected that June's White Paper will ask existing councils to come up with solutions on the size and structure on their replacements, with ministers hoping that authorities will be like turkeys voting for Christmas, and volunteering themselves for abolition.

Although hints have been dropped that any new structure of local government will be introduced in April 2009, he rejected yesterday's reports that shire district council elections in 2007 will be scrapped. “We don't expect or intend to cancel the local elections next year.”


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