Will Gordon take on England's shires?

April 1 2009 - that's the date planned for the next great upheaval for England's councils. But Political Editor Graham Dines considers whether Gordon Brown might be tempted to scupper the plans if he becomes Prime Minister.

April 1 2009 - that's the date planned for the next great upheaval for England's councils. But Political Editor Graham Dines considers whether Gordon Brown might be tempted to scupper the plans if he becomes Prime Minister.

IT'S full steam ahead for yet another major reform of local government.

That's the message from Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, even though the long promised White Paper is to be delayed by three months.

English devolution, as a balance to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, is very much at the top of Tony Blair's great reform agenda.

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But the overwhelming referendum rejection of plans for an elected assembly in North East England, the brainchild of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, underline just what an impossible task is facing ministers as they try to define a role for England in what - in Whitehall speak - is a United Kingdom of nations and regions.

While Mr Prescott was overlord of English local government, he was intent on pursuing a plan envisaging the break-up of the shire counties. In effect, he was determined to finish the job started by Edward Heath's Conservative government in 1972 and bring in unitary authorities in the shires - councils responsible for all civic functions instead of the split between county and district councils.

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After the 2005 General Election, he was joined by David Miliband who wanted to see greater community involvement in running local affairs - in effect introducing the concept of parish councils to urban areas.

Tony Blair's panic response to Labour's disastrous showing in last month's local government elections, partly explained away by problems in the Home Office and publicity over John Prescott's affair with one of his diary secretaries, was to strip Mr Prescott of his departmental responsibilities and to promote Mr Miliband to take charge of the environment and rural affairs.

As a result, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was rebranded the Department for Communities and Local Government and Ruth Kelly was moved from the education brief to oversee the reorganisation of councils.

The White Paper has been delayed to after the parliamentary recess to enable Ms Kelly to stamp her authority on the proposals. It's likely that a slot will be found in the Queen's Speech for the necessary legislation, with the aim of enacting it before July 2007.

Ms Kelly was due to make the announcement in the Commons in reply to a parliamentary question. But the opportunity was missed when the Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith failed to show up and she had to use a media reception for national and regional lobby journalists to say the White Paper had been postponed.

Elections for any new authorities will take place in 2008 and the councils will start functioning in April 2009.

But Government ministers seem uncertain just what the response in the shires will be. Will there be mass opposition by county and district councils - many of which have councillors who pick up pay and expenses from serving on more than one authority - or will there be a popular clamour for change so that members of the public are not confused about which council does what?

Ministers have stressed they will not force through unitary status and are unlikely to want to tread on the thorny issue of boundary changes - unlike the Heath government which in secret drew up plans to amalgamate historic rural and urban districts and then issued a White Paper and published legislation sticking up two fingers to local opinion.

The Government's job will be easier in some parts of England than others. For instance, the councils in Cornwall are expected to agree to merge their powers into one all-purpose authority covering the whole of the county. Durham is likely to go down the same route.

In other areas, there is talk of a federation, with more powers handed out to districts but social services and education still under the control of counties.

In East Anglia, there will be massive opposition from county councils if some districts seek the unitary option.

In Suffolk, the three main political parties in Ipswich are united - they want all-purpose status for the county town and independence from the rest of Suffolk.

This begs the question - is Ipswich big enough on its current boundaries? Almost certainly, the answer is yes, but many argue that it's a nonsense if the outlying estates of Pinewood and Kesgrave, most of whose residents moved out of Ipswich or who work in the town, were to be excluded from a unitary Ipswich.

But if the Government won't contemplate redrawing boundaries without local consent, the only way a Greater Ipswich council could be formed is if Babergh and Suffolk Coastal districts agree to a partial merger.

And if Ipswich is allowed to go it alone, with or without parts of neighbouring authorities, what happens to the rest of Suffolk?

Waveney could quite easily volunteer to merge with Great Yarmouth in a cross-border unitary. That would leave Suffolk as Forest Heath, St Edmundsbury, Mid Suffolk, Babergh and Coastal - a truly rural authority which would face massive sparsity problems.

Ipswich council leader Liz Harsant is unrepentant about seeking unitary status, even though she clashes with official Conservative Party policy. “It is absolutely right that Ipswich borough should be responsible for its own services.

“We are working in conjunction with Norwich, Oxford and Exeter to seek unitary status. I'm sorry if that upsets my county colleagues and the party nationally, but that's the way it is. There is positive support from residents and businesses right across Ipswich and I've written to the national party explaining our position.”

In Norwich, councillors want to declare UDI from Norfolk. But as with Suffolk, should that happen and Great Yarmouth links up with Waveney, there would just be a rump area left to be administered as a Norfolk rural unitary.

Cambridgeshire already has a unitary council. Peterborough was granted independence by John Major's government in the mid 1990s, leaving the Fens, Huntingdonshire and Cambridge city to be administered by a county and district councils.

Stiff opposition to any change in the way local government is administered will be led by Essex, where the county and shire districts - all controlled by the Tories - are determined to keep the status quo.

Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock are unitary, created at the same time as Peterborough, but the rest of Essex wants to keep the county council in Chelmsford the dominant force.

One or two voices have been raised in protest. The Labour Party in Colchester is promoting the idea of a merger with Clacton-based Tendring as a North-East Essex unitary authority, but without Tory support, it won't get off the drawing board.

Nationally, the Conservatives are dead set against the scrapping of shire counties, even though their predecessors of 32 years ago started the ball rolling.

Having seen off all talk of elected regional government, David Cameron's Tories will mount a massive campaign “to save our county councils” - most of which are controlled by the Conservatives.

Any legislation will be resisted in the House of Lords, although the Government has enough votes in the Commons - its massed legion of Scottish and Welsh MPs will see to that - to ensure reform goes through.

There's one last unanswered question - what's the attitude of Gordon Brown? He's almost certain to be Prime Minister when the legislation is before the Commons. Does he really want to take on the Tory shires and give them electoral ammunition at the following General Election?

With Mr Cameron leading the charge, the Conservatives will make the most of a Scotsman and his lackey Scottish MPs forcing through a major and costly change to the way local government is administered in England.

With Mr Brown needing all the votes he can get in southern and eastern England if he is to win an election against the resurgent Tories, he might not be unhappy to see the legislation mauled in the House of Lords.

And if he becomes Prime Minister before the Queen's Speech, it may well be that Ruth Kelly is moved and her plans are aborted for electoral expediency.

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