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Case no: CO/2363/95 ...
Case no: CO/2363/95

Lancashire CC today launched a high court bid to lift the threat of Blackburn and Blackpool being given independence in the local government review.

The county council claims new policy guidance issued by the environment secretary to the Local Government Commission means that independent unitary status for the two towns is almost a foregone conclusion.

By making its 'preferred result' clear to the commission, the government has undermined the body's neutral role to make its own mind up on the desirability of change, said Lancashire's counsel, Duncan Ouseley QC.

Mr Justice Judge was told that after its review of local government structure throughout England, the commission had in many areas recommended abolition of county councils and their replacement by smaller, independent unitary bodies.

But Lancashire CC thought it had got away scot free when in October last year the commission recommended that there should be no change to the existing two tier structure of local government in the county.

But its hopes of being left alone have been placed in jeopardy by the environment secretary's decision in June this year to order yet another review.

The commission has been directed to re-review the cases of 21 metropolitan districts in 12 counties - including Blackpool and Blackburn - to see if they qualify for unitary status.

But Mr Ouseley claimed that the policy guidance given by the secretary of state to the commission for the conduct of the fresh reviews was 'skewed and slanted' in favour of change.

The commission's independence was bound to be affected by the guidance which made clear the government's strong preference for unitary councils, he added.

This is not the first time that Lancashire CC has taken the environment secretary to court over his handling of local government re-structuring.

The high court last year struck down part of the ministerial guidance given to the commission before the first review on grounds that it was prejudiced in favour of the unitary option.

And Mr Ouseley told Mr Justice Judge that the new policy guidance - published in June this year - suffered from the 'same vice' as the old, giving the strong impression that unitary councils were to be preferred to retention of the existing two-tier structure.

The court heard the commission had specifically rejected creation of unitary authorities in Lancashire because of lack of public support for the move.

The commission said that unitary status for Blackpool risked causing 'fragmentation of services' and unnecessary administrative costs to the tax-payer.

Mr Ouseley told the court that the sole 'statutory criteria' which the commission had to take into account were the need to reflect local identities and interests and to secure 'effective and convenient' local government.

Applying those criteria, the commission had recommended firmly that there should be no change in Lancashire.

But Mr Ouseley told the court: 'The new guidance quite clearly conveys the message that the government desires the outcome of unitary authorities for the re-reviewed districts.'

The guidance said that the government's preference was now a 'matter to be taken into account' by the commission, although it went far beyond the statutory criteria, he added.

The guidance had the effect of telling the commission that the reasons it previously gave for recommending no change in Lancashire were no longer to be treated as decisive.

'The guidance clearly conveys the messsage that the previous recommendations should not stand and that unitary authorities should now be recommended notwithstanding the commission's previous conclusions'.

The guidance specifically stated that the commission was not to be precluded from recommending change even if it were a more expensive option than retention of the two-tier system, said Mr Ouseley.

The government's view was that, although reorganisation might cause short-term disruption, there was widespread demand for change which, if ignored, would lead to 'dissatisfaction and instability'.

But Mr Ouseley said: 'The clear purpose of the changes to the guidance is to point in one particular direction the commission's recommendation on the re-review.

'The guidance is intended only to result in the acceptance of the government's desire for unitary authorities notwithstanding the previous rejection of these by the commission on the grounds that they did not meet the statutory criteria'.

Lancashire CC is asking the court to overturn the June 1995 policy guidance and the government's direction that the commission must take the guidance into account when re-reviewing the 21 districts.

The hearing, expected to last two days, continues.

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