Minister refuses to defend counties

A GOVERNMENT minister yesterday refused to deny that county councils could be axed under a proposed shake-up of local government in England which is being considered by Whitehall.

By Graham Dines

A GOVERNMENT minister yesterday refused to deny that county councils could be axed under a proposed shake-up of local government in England which is being considered by Whitehall.

More than a century of county administration in Suffolk and Essex is under threat from the plans, which are believed to have the blessing of David Miliband, the Minister for Communities in Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's office.

In the Commons yesterday, Tory MPs who think that counties themselves could be wiped off the map said axing England's ancient shire county system would be an act of political vandalism.


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The claim follows reports that the Government is considering replacing the two-tier system of district and county authorities with unitary authorities. A confidential Whitehall report obtained by a Sunday newspaper proposes the scrapping of the 34 shires, many of which date from Anglo-Saxon times.

In parliamentary questions yesterday, Tory James Gray (Wiltshire North) criticised the merger of county-based emergency and planning services into larger, regional unit and challenged Mr Miliband: “Will you not express your strong support for the county council structure across England which has served the test of time?”

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He replied: “There is a strong commitment on the part of this party to make sure that the regional voice that exists is that of local people and that is what we are doing.”

Another Conservative, David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) launched a stinging attack on the Government's local government strategy. Referring to the South West regional assembly -- an unelected body - Mr Heathcoat-Amory protested: “Are you aware of what a useless and time wasting body it is with its totally artificial boundaries stretching for more than 150 miles from Penzance up to the North Gloucestershire boundary?”'

He challenged Mr Miliband to comment on reports that shire counties could fall victim to the Government's “mad'” regionalisation strategy. "If you do contemplate an act of political vandalism like that will you put it to an early referendum in the South West when you will get exactly the same result as you did in the North East last year when it was rejected by 78%?”

Mr Miliband defended regional assemblies because for “the first time” they gave “local people, local councillors and local business people the chance to have a say.''

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