There's a cash limit to unitary clamour

THE devil is in the detail. And after re-reading the ministerial statement on unitary government, I urge caution on Ipswich borough council before it gets too carried away with the prospect of becoming independent of Suffolk on April 1 2009.

By Graham Dines

THE devil is in the detail. And after re-reading the ministerial statement on unitary government, I urge caution on Ipswich borough council before it gets too carried away with the prospect of becoming independent of Suffolk on April 1 2009.

Local government minister Phil Woolas laid great emphasis in his statement that permission for new unitaries is cash limited - in other words, Chancellor Gordon Brown has laid down a maximum amount of grant the Government will make available for transitional costs in setting up unitary councils.

And those costs will also have to meet any losses that will fall on the taxpayers in the rest of Suffolk if Ipswich is to go its own way.

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Ipswich is one of 17 authorities making unitary bids which will now be examined by Treasury officials.

Amid all the mass of figures released by the Government this week, the business case for Ipswich is ranked joint 11th out of the 17.

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“Implementation of any proposals involving transitional costs, financed by the use of reserves, impacts on planned public expenditure totals. Any use of reserves must therefore in aggregate be within the limited envelope available,” said Mr Woolas.

“It was because of this limited envelope that the . . . Government thinks it unlikely that it would be able to implement more than eight proposals, but that this maximum number would not preclude the Government from deciding to implement more if they offered good value for money and were affordable.”

So affordability is key to the whole question. Having had 26 councils apply for unitary status, and then shortlisting 17 for further investigation, ministers are playing a cruel game with candidate councils. Nine could have their business cases thrown out when the Government draws up the final list.

After an initial look at the bids, the Department for Communities and Local Government has draw up the following rankings in order of sustainability: joint 1st are Cumbria, Durham, and North Yorkshire county councils; joint 4th are Cheshire, Cornwall, Northumberland, and Somerset county councils; joint 8th are Somerset, Wiltshire and Shropshire; in joint 11th place are Bedford, Chester, Exeter, Ipswich and Northumberland south districts; 16th is Norwich; and 17th is Northumberland south east districts.

The clear winners are county councils. This is where the major savings will be found - scrapping the current two-tier structure of counties and districts and replacing them with a single unitary county will save millions in duplication, staffing, administration costs, and elected councillors.

Ministers want unitary counties. However, they know that taking on the shires of England will cause a huge political row in many areas. I suspect that's why the plea by Oxford for unitary status was thrown out - ministers did not want to ratchet up too much opposition, and David Cameron is the MP for neighbouring Witney and deeply opposed to scrapping two-tier local government.

Ipswich's 11th ranking is made up of the aggregate scores for five category heads: affordability of its bid is rated reasonable by civil servants, cross section of political and community support is reasonable, strategic leadership is rated high, neighbourhood empowerment is rated high, and improved service delivery is rated reasonable.

Compare this with Cumbria, Durham and North Yorkshire county councils, which received top scores in all categories.

Once Suffolk and the six districts start bombarding Whitehall with reasons why Ipswich should not be allowed to cut and run from county administration, including a detailed financial breakdown on what they see as the adverse impact on the rest of the county, Ipswich will need strong arguments to back up its case.

Yesterday, Ipswich set out its stall in a media release. “One council is better than two - less duplication, less bureaucracy, less waste. No increase in council tax in Ipswich and Suffolk. Fewer managers, better value. No increase in business rates and a faster and better response to business needs. All councillors will live or work in Ipswich - the buck stops with them. Council leaders will be visible, approachable and accountable. A vibrant Ipswich means a vibrant Suffolk.”

All backing for and opposition to the Ipswich bid must be lodged by June 22. It will be another four weeks before the final announcement is made - by which time Gordon “Prudence” Brown will be firmly ensconced in 10 Downing Street and there could be a new ministerial team to convince.


IN a crisis, the Government can always depend on Patricia Hewitt to add fuel to the flames.

The Aussie-born health secretary, who is presiding over a major health care funding disasters in parts of England, blundered this week into the Scottish election campaign

Ms Hewitt repeatedly referred to Scotland's First Minister Jack McConnell as “Jack McDonnell” while on Scottish Television ostensibly to praise Scotland's smoking ban.

It delighted the Scottish National Party, with Angus MacNeil (MP for Na h-Eileanan An Iar) claiming in the Commons that the gaffe proved “the reality of the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster”.

I know how McConnell feels. Every time I meet Mrs Hewitt, she calls me Brian.


WITH constituency boundary changes set to be confirmed by the House of Commons, the Tory Party has inaugurated its Harwich and North Essex branch. They've chosen former Colchester parliamentary candidate Kevin Bentley as chairman and safe pair of hands to guide them through the next three years and the General Election campaign.

Notr that that should be too onerous a duty. This has “safe Tory seat” written all over it from Wivenhoe to Harwich and Dedham to Manningtree. The party has yet to choose a candidate, but current Essex North MP Bernard Jenkin is likely to be selected unopposed.

Mr Bentley will have more trouble with the quarrelling Tories on Tendring district council. May's local elections could be a disaster for the party following the decision to suspend council leader Terry Allen and axe him as a candidate.

With neighbouring Clacton Conservatives in disarray, don't be surprised if a number of renegade Tories stand against official party candidates in Tendring - and get elected.


UKIP's East of England Euro MP Jeffery Titford proved himself to be the fishermen's friend after taking up the cudgels on behalf of trawlermen whose livelihoods will be affected by a new measure which allows them to catch skate and rays as a 20% by-catch. In other words, the skates and rays must be part of a much larger catch.

“The fact that it would be physically impossible for under 10 metre boats to land a large enough catch to allow for a 20% by-catch, seems to have eluded all the decision makers in Brussels and Westminster,” says Mr Titford. “Such is the disillusionment with DEFRA, that the fishermen asked me if I could arrange for them to meet with European Fisheries Commissioner, Joe Borg.''

He took a delegation of four fishermen from East Anglia and the south coast to meet the EU's fisheries commissioner who said Europe set the quota and it was the role of DEFRA to decide how it should be implemented.

At a meeting this week with the UK's fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw, a different story emerged. Mr Titford, who was accompanied by a number of MPs, was told by the minister that the by-catch rule had been part of a complex proposal delivered at the 11th hour before the Fisheries Council met in December and the full implications of it had simply been missed.

“Mr Bradshaw told us he had been able to provide the under 10 metre fishery with an additional 150 tonnes of sole quota for this year, by swapping prawn quota with the Germans. Efforts would also be made to try to get the by-catch rule lifted, before the next round of negotiations in December.”

Mr Titford said: “British waters are being plundered and the quota allocation desperately needs an overhaul so that it is more fairly distributed among genuine British fishermen. The under 10 metre fleet has around three quarters of the manpower working in fishing but only has 3% of the quota.”

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