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GOVERNMENT'S APPROACH TO REORGANISATION WRONG, SAYS BANHAM

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Government should have come to decisions on the functions, financing and management of councils before embarking on...
Government should have come to decisions on the functions, financing and management of councils before embarking on a review of local authority structures, Local Government Commission chairman John Banham said in a Radio 5 Live discussion (Jan 8).

Emphasising he was speaking for himself and not the commission, Sir John said it was asked simply to look at structure and had been steered from other areas.

'Let us not forget that every day parliament sits at Westminster it is producing 15 pages of law and 18 statutory instruments. This is simply centralisation gone mad.

'We need to understand that basically the more we can devolve to the local level to let local people make the decisions that affect their lives the better it will be, not just for local people but for parliament at Westminster as well'.

He added: 'We need to be thinking about the role of local government, the way it is financed, the way it is managed before we start talking about structure. We have an obsession in the United Kingdom traditionally about structure'.

London School of Economics director of research Tony Travers said that the DoE, unlike the Scottish and Welsh Office civil servants, decided they could not draw up a solution.

'That was rather welcome. For once, the DoE did not think it could do something. I think seriously there was an attempt in England, where there was no real certainty as to what was needed, to set up a commission that was independent - and has been independent, probably more independent than the government wanted - to come up with what people wanted.

'There is always the difficulty underlying what people want because different people want different things', added Mr Travers.

There was also the conflict between professionals and civil servants, who want services to be provided across big local authorities, and people who want smaller ones representing areas which they recognise.

In Scotland and Wales, where civil servants had sat in their offices and drawn lines on maps, some of the new authorities were complete nonsenses and represented no identifiable communities, and probably were not big enough either, said Mr Travers.

Sheila Lawler, of the Centre for Policy Studies, said from the debate between big and small, central versus local she believed subsidiarity and devolution would go much further than to existing councils. But already, in such areas as grant maintained schools and local management of schools, local government had already been seen to be resisting such devolution.

Sir John said the commission was absolutely convinced communities were much smaller than districts, let alone counties. That is why it had argued consistently there should be a much more worthwhile role for local town and parish councils. Local government has to be big enough to act and think strategically, but it has to be small enough to deliver services to very small local communities.

It was combining those two things in rural areas which very often meant a continuation of a two tier system, which had been in existence for more than a century, he added.

The first level of local government in the UK was much bigger than in most of the developed world and district councillors were ambivalent about devolving more power to town and parish councils because they see them as a threat rather than potential partners, which was regrettable - just as parliament in general saw local government as a threat.

Association of District Councils chair Margaret Singh said size was not important. There had to be a system in which people could understand and participate in. they had to know where to go to sort out a problem and get access to an officer or councillor without too much trouble.

At first, she said, it seemed England had got a far better deal than Wales. In fact it had caused confusion so much that only 7% of people responded to the commission.

'I think that if you had put a few bored chief executives together in a council chamber on a wet Wednesday they would probably have come up with something better than this expensive commission has done', said Mrs Singh.

Mr Travers commented that outside areas like Bristol and Hull there was no 'saloon bar' demand for change. People were not galvanised on local government reorganisation as they had been over the poll tax. By and large people in Britain were content with what they had.

Sir John said the Welsh reorganisation had 'Balkanised' a country with a population equivalent to that of two large English counties.

The commission's proposals would enable a new government to introduce regional government while Mrs Singh claimed unitary authorities must be the building blocks of such a development.

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