Ipswich's big push for unitary glory

JOHN Prescott may have lost his departmental responsibilities for local government, but he is in a prime position to drive forward the Government's local government reform agenda which could see the end of two tier councils in shire England.

JOHN Prescott may have lost his departmental responsibilities for local government, but he is in a prime position to drive forward the Government's local government reform agenda which could see the end of two tier councils in shire England.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be chairing a Cabinet committee on regional and local government and the new Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly has been charged by the Prime Minister with completing the task the Tories started in 1972 - the introduction of all-purpose unitary councils.

All this is good news for Ipswich, which has gone out on a limb and is positively campaigning to be allowed to break free from Suffolk's chains and go it alone.

Much to the chagrin of the Conservatives running Suffolk county council, Ipswich Tories have joined with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to launch the case for a unitary Ipswich, and the council has produced a glossy brochure detailing the advantages of being master of all main local government services from schools and libraries to roads and consumer protection.

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As soon as talk surfaced to the abolition of county government, Essex county council's politically astute Lord Hanningfield reached agreement with district leaders to present a united front hostile to unitaries. With the Government intimating any future reform must be by consent - such as no forced marriage of Colchester and Tendring - the Conservatives have stolen a march in Essex over Labour which supports unitary councils.

Either Suffolk Tories didn't see local government reorganisation looming on the horizon, or they hoped that could find common cause with all seven district authorities in the county to keep the two-tier structures.

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But Ipswich wants nothing to do with the status quo. It's broken ranks, and is lobbying with other large districts in England such as Norwich and Oxford to be given all-purpose powers.

Ipswich has three hurdles to cross. The first is whether the county council tries to block the move by calling the Government's bluff over consent.

Secondly, it needs to establish whether with a population of 125,000 and tightly drawn boundaries, it is big enough to go it alone. The council says it is and points to smaller unitary authorities.

With all three political parties in unity, Ipswich is in a stronger position than many other towns in England but the third hurdle is timing. Even if the Government says yes, the legislation may not get off the drawing board before Messrs Blair and Prescott leave office and are replaced by pragmatic politicians who don't want a stand up row with the shires of England.

SIR Menzies Campbell - whose cruel nickname in the House of Commons Press Gallery is Captain Useless - has less than a year to prove the journalists wrong.

On May 3 2007, all of England's shire districts go to the polls, and a disastrous showing by the Liberal Democrats could see pressure for him to stand aside for a more dynamic, media friendly leader.

Last week at Prime Minister's Questions, his own MPs looked on in embarrassment as Sir Menzies fumbled and bumbled his way through his two questions to the Prime Minister.

On Wednesday, he went for brevity and asked two tiny questions on whether British troops will have left Iraq and Afghanistan before the Prime Minister quits Downing Street.

Since being elected leader, he has made little impact in the Commons. Indeed, when it looked as if he had at last delivered a killer punch over the scandalous release into society of convicted overseas nations, he had to scuttle back to the Commons and apologise for giving MPs the wrong information.

In this year's round of local contests, the Lib Dems stood still, ending up with only a handful of extra councillors and losing big time in areas such as Brentwood in Essex and the London borough of Islington. One of their few rays of hope was in Watford, where directly elected mayor Dorothy Thornhill won a second term - but I suspect that had much to do with her bubbly personality and public visibility rather than the fact that she is a Liberal Democrat.

You'll recall that Sir Menzies ended up leader after Charles Kennedy was forced to resign because of the mounting pressure over his confession that he was an alcoholic.

But at least Mr Kennedy had the common touch. He was personable, friendly, and someone with whom journalists - most of whom like more than the odd wee dram themselves - could empathise.

With Tony Blair in deep trouble with his own troops, Sir Ming is being outsmarted and outclassed by the new Tory leader David Cameron, who is grabbing all the headlines and is even ahead of Gordon Brown in public esteem.

Lib Dems tell me, with fingers crossed, that much can change in a year. Of course - they can get worse.

THE EU Commission has announced the full application of Directive 2004/38/EC, which means from now on all citizens of the 25 member states have the right to move and reside freely anywhere within the Union. EU Vice-President Franco Frattini called it a “milestone in the EU integration process. It is a clear expression of European citizenship itself”.

With Romania and Bulgaria about to join the club, and negotiations underway with Croatia and Turkey, there's now no bar on cash rich UK citizens buying up cheap property on the continent in tourism hotspots.

Mind you, they won't be able to complain when Bulgarians and others move over here in large numbers to gut chickens, pick carrots, and sweep the streets of dog excrement - jobs which most Brits won't touch with the proverbial.

There is just one “if” clause in the directive - “citizens must either exercise an economic activity as a worker or self-employed persons or have sufficient resources and a comprehensive sickness insurance” when applying for permanent residency in another member state.

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