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FRONT LINE FIRST - AWAITING THE PARISH PUMP PUNCH UP

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In the days when Baroness Thatcher was still speaking to the world, her election visit to the south-west for a fire...
In the days when Baroness Thatcher was still speaking to the world, her election visit to the south-west for a fire-and-brimstone speech coincided with the release of the film Return of the Mummy. Now that the Thatcher mantle has been safely inherited by New Labour and Peter Mandelson has volunteered to be John the Baptist I am happy to leave the good lady in the hands of her disciples.

I do, however, take enormous satisfaction from the re-release of Big Daddy, or John Prescott Rides Again. I know that saving the planet is an important job, but Westminster without the deputy prime minister was like sitting down to steak and kidney pie without the kidney. Hearing Mr Prescott's tones over the ether from some departure lounge several time zones away could never compare with the sheer knee-hugging pleasure of watching his syllables ricochet across the Commons chamber.

But now he is back, ready and eager to promote another great episode in the wonderful series of Labour Carry-on productions - Carry on Re-organising. For Mr Prescott is going to give us another local government

re-organisation.

It is difficult to know why any sane government should want to re-visit this particular territory. It is not even a step into the unknown: that might, at least, have the merit of boldness. It is an open-eyed, deliberate walk into a minefield. It is seriously difficult to think of any activity in which the ratio of effort to reward is so unfavourable. When you know the fury which can be generated by a modest suggestion that neighbouring district councils within the same county should merge it makes you realise what a miracle it was that they managed to fight two world wars on the same side.

All this, of course, is about regional assemblies. Number 10 panicked at the idea of having to defend 'another layer of bureaucracy' if the creation of regional councils was not balanced by the abolition of an existing tier of government. Quite who is ready to support the creation of regional assemblies is not clear.

Either it is true that we lack proper accountable strategic decision-making at regional level or it is not. If it is true then why is it necessary to abolish something to fill an obvious gap? If it is not true, then we should drop the whole idea of regional assemblies as unnecessary. And, if the purpose of an assembly is genuinely strategic it is difficult to see why they are such an onerous weight that ballast has to be thrown overboard.

In Yorkshire and Humberside, re-organisation might look simple; all the councils are unitaries outside North Yorkshire. The north-east and north-west are both patchworks of unitary councils and two-tier areas. The south-west is predominantly two-tier. Even if the government proposes the creation of a single tier of unitary councils by diktat the scope for aggravation is huge.

Prime minister Tony Blair seems to demand a scheme with no loose ends. He is wrong. If he wants the debate to become mired in parish pump punch-ups he ison course to achieve it. Perhaps the new John Prescott feature should have a new sub-title: Bull in a China Shop?

David Curry

Conservative MP for Skipton & Ripon

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