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There is more to regional government than meets the eye, says Chris Trinick ...
There is more to regional government than meets the eye, says Chris Trinick

Professor Michael Chisholm of Cambridge University recently claimed the cost of reorganisation in the 1990s has been overlooked in the context of the regional debate in the north of England, particularly over council tax.

When Lancashire CC took part in the last round of local government reorganisation the up-front cost in terms of severance payments as a result of the creation of Blackburn with Darwen and Blackpool as unitaries was£4.3m.

At that time there were several thousand retirements, early retirements, redundancies and staff transfers including about 300 severances. When the cabinet closed last year's accounts I felt bound to point out to them that there is a recurring£0.55m which the council taxpayer is still funding relating to those 300 severances. That is a figure that will not be reconciled for many years to come.

I welcome the recognition from the Local Government Association and ODPM that overall costs are an important factor and would encourage all counties and districts to respond to their survey.

Of course, there are other issues at least as important as financial costs. What price the implementation of Every child matters if we are trying to handle structural change at the same time? Here we have the ultimate challenge to the generation of officers around long enough to see the aspirations of the Seebohm Committee implemented in social services departments in the 1970s. A move away from looking at children and families holistically in the 1980s and a gradual drift back now is finally recognised by government in their draft Children Bill.

To achieve the higher aspirations of that bill is difficult enough in itself, but with structural changes and the establishment of new unitary authorities what price will be paid by service users for the inevitable disruption that will take place?

One might also ask, in the context of Lancashire, what price the local public service agreeme nts, the rural partnership, the highways partnership and the waste partnership? The latter has just received£75m of government credits as a national 'leading edge' model. The reason for the high allocation was excellent joint working arrangements.

I can understand some district colleagues having aspirations to establish larger unitary authorities, but why are we doing this on the basis of arguing the case for regional assemblies rather than looking at the reality of local government spending?

Roughly 70% of local government spend goes on education and social services. At the moment, regional assemblies offer control of 3% of public expenditure. Even if that were to be expanded to 10% would it be worth the effort? Some more rational discussions about costs need to take place following Prof Chisholm's work. Lancashire's auditor was quite right in saying to the cabinet when presenting his annual audit letter that it is important 'not to take our eye off the ball'.

I fear we may be lining up to do just that.

Chris Trinick

Chief executive, Lancashire CC

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