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DAVID CURRY - WHERE'S SOME REAL MEAT?

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What, oh what, does the government think it is doing with this dog's breakfast of a reorganisation? If it believes ...
What, oh what, does the government think it is doing with this dog's breakfast of a reorganisation? If it believes that local services are best delivered - and more accountable - to local people by unitary councils why doesn't it get on and have a comprehensive reorganisation? If it doesn't believe the case is made why mess around with this distracting do-it-yourself programme?

After all, by now the evidence should be pretty clear: the unitary councils created by the Tories in the Banham reorganisation are a decade old. No one can claim that they have not been tested, examined, scrutinised, prodded, poked and damn near psychoanalysed by Labour's huge machinery of inspection sufficiently to yield some idea of whether the whole process has been worth it.

The criteria for making it to the shortlist are, of course, typical of the department's nebulous 'concept-speak'. What is meant, in language people actually use, by 'opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility' or 'equity on public services?' And what form will the 'stakeholder consultation' to which the 16 short-listed bids will now proceed really take? Let's hope the bidders have made provision for stakeholder relationship managers in their strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership proposals.

I wonder to what extent the government has stumbled into this reorganisation. David Miliband, in his brief manifestation at DCLG (main achievement: cancellation of council tax revaluation which drove a stake into the heart of the Lyons report), seemed to wax enthusiastic for reorganisation. The trail went cold under Ruth Kelly where the agenda swung towards devolution with the bigger issues deferred to Lyons.

When the white paper was published the invitation to tender for unitary status seemed almost a postscript and ministers were at pains to minimise expectations. They envisaged around eight (why eight?) successful proposals. Now we have 16 bids shortlisted and the number of new unitary councils could go beyond that if the 'rump' of a county is felt to be unworkable under a two-tier system once the main conurbation has achieved independence.

Ministers could well have been warned that they could face judicial review if they did not make a very clear distinction between bids which met and bids which failed to meet the criteria - the dislocation which judicial intervention wrought on the Banham review no doubt lives on in the folk-memory of the department. I do not start with a rooted hostility to reorganisation, though my own preference is for much smaller councils where leaders really are accessible and hence more accountable. Nor do I believe that there is a problem with a heterodox structure of local government. But when there are clearly a number of important decisions to be taken about the fundamental geometry of local representation (and the relationship between those bodies and the government), I want to see all ideas framed together to see how they relate to each other. In other words,I want an intellectual framework.

And this is why I part company with Ruth Kelly. This government has spent half its life lecturing councils on the need for strategic leadership. Yet the one thing it consistently fails to provide itself is any sort of strategic leadership. What we have is a string of unresolved issues with no real idea of whither the process or the timescale for their resolution.

We know the department is chewing over the practicalities of city regions. We also know it is reflecting on whether existing regional structures should be changed. The two issues are, of course, intimately linked. We half-know where Gordon Brown is coming from but not yet clearly what is his direction of travel, despite the (allegedly) Brown-by-proxy pamphlets from the Treasury duo John Healey and Ed Balls MPs.

We also know where the government will not tread: the Lyons report arrived dying on the doormat and it was not clear at Sir Michael's press conference launching the much-delayed document whether even he saw himself as midwife or undertaker.

The consultation on the unitary proposals runs until 22 June. Give or take a couple of days, that is when Gordon Brown will finally take over No 10. Is it too much to hope that we will have the return of something resembling purposeful government?

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