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FEATURES-DIVIDED WE FALL

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If the government starts tinkering with the structure of local government, it could cost them dear, says Jon McLeod...
If the government starts tinkering with the structure of local government, it could cost them dear, says Jon McLeod

Oh no. The genie is out of the bottle again. Almost inadvertently ministers have set hares running about the possible need for further local government reform.

The debate is a side-effect of the drive to promote regional democracy. The Labour manifesto re-affirmed ministers' commitment to move towards 'directly elected regional government, where there is demand for this expressed in a referendum'. It said change would require 'predominantly unitary local government' in the affected region.

This was followed in April, by regions champion Dick Caborn's pledge of an early green paper after the election. In May, Hilary Armstrong warned, in an LGC exclusive, 'we will have to look at the two-tier system' in relation to regional government, (LGC, 18 May).

Later that month, after a metaphorical egg-pelting from the Tory front bench, deputy prime minister John Prescott denied county councils were for the chop.

And then, lo and behold, straight after the 7 June poll, the local government minister Nick Raynsford tried to kick the whole thing into touch: 'My top priority is service delivery and I don't want to divert attention from that.'

The Banham review of local government structure in the 1990s was at best a botch job, at worst a banquet for lobbyists. I should know - I am one.

One has a sneaking admiration for

the autocratic brutality with which the Tories imposed single-tier local government on Scotland and Wales

while a mind-boggling round of tinkering got under way in England.

The result is what some refer to as a 'variable geometry' for local government structure across the English shires. You might more accurately call it a mess.

As all of us working in or with local government are only too aware the public struggles to understand which tier of government, which quango or private sector partner they should deal with to get satisfaction in the public services.

But does this mean a further round of jumbling reform is really warranted?

A key concern must be the threat to smaller districts. I declare an interest here as a paid adviser to the Most Sparsely Populated Councils' Group.

There's a lazy logic that presumes small districts are inefficient and incompatible with effective local and regional government.

Wrong. Look at France, Spain and Germany. All these countries saw the introduction of regional governance with no diminution of the contribution of departments of all shapes and sizes.

It is a fact of life that rural people, already alienated from government, have had their trust in authority stretched to the limit by the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The smallest tiers of government are those they are most likely to connect with. So the challenge facing districts is to work with other larger tiers more effectively.

Finally, the warning to ministers must be heard in Whitehall too - tinkering with structures is a costly,messy diversion, not suited to a second term with a clear mandate for delivery. Don't even go there.

Jon McLeod

Senior director, Weber Shandwick Public Affairs

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