Two-tier authorities will be abolished and replaced by unitary councils in regions that decide to establish elected assemblies, local government minister Nick Raynsford told a conference today.
The new assemblies could be in place by 2006 although the decision not to establish them before the end of this parliament caused dismay among some delegates to an LGA conference titled 'The new regional agenda - implications for local government' in London.
Mr Raynsford denied any government agenda to abolish county councils by stealth.
'This is all about choice - no region will be forced to go down this route. Before any regional assemblies are established there must be a referendum and a majority of the votes cast must show support,' he said.
'We won't require all regions to have referendums, only those where public and regional stakeholders are interested in having a chamber. We will say more in the months ahead about how we intend to assess the level of interest in regional assemblies.
'The Boundary Commission will make a review of local government structures to create wholly unitary government. There is no hidden agenda here to get rid of counties or districts. The reorganisation could be modelled on the county structure or around groups of district councils, depending on local preferences.
'This is a permissive framework in which only some areas are likely to go for elected regional assemblies. The existing structure can continue without fear of disruption where there is no interest in regional government. If voters are going to vote for regional assemblies they should be well aware of the implications of that for the existing tiers of local government.
'Some people are concerned about what distractions a further review of structures will cause, raising fears of a repeat of the Banham review of the early 90s and the damage that did. We want to keep the disruption process to a minimum. All existing unitary authorities will be excluded from the review but equally there will be no option to keep two tiers of local government where regional assemblies are established. Local authorities can minimise the problem by working constructively with the Boundary Commission.'
'Implicit in our White Paper is variable geometry - we intend to introduce a bill to provide for referendums when parliamentary time allows, probably within this parliament. Elections to these assemblies will be held early within the next parliament assuming there is at least one yes vote during this parliament. I'm quite relaxed about this as long as there is no regional bias [in favour of regions who adopt the assemblies]. The assemblies can add value but they won't be given preferential treatment.'
Delegates to the LGA event were critical of plans to link regional assemblies to further reorganisation. Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, leader of Kent CC (Conservative) said:
'This is taking away the incentive to stand for election when there is a shortage of candidates already. We should de-couple the local government review from the regional question. The instability of a local government review every five years is a great threat to local service delivery.'
Pauleen Lane, deputy leader of Trafford MBC, said: ''The Boundary Commission are the worst people of all to decide anything to do with regional devolution. We cannot have them deciding this when they do not even have service delivery within their remit. District and counties should examine service delivery needs and from that derive suitable boundaries for unitary authorities.
She added: 'The government needs to get slightly more courageous. It has been far too cautious in these proposals. I support the concept of regional government as a means to counteract the vortex which the South-east and London have become in this country. It's about having an economic unit to allow regions to make sensible decisions for themselves...There is a huge prize for local government in these proposals; if we break the Whitehall stranglehold, look where that may lead local government.'
Newcastle City Council leader Tony Flynn, who is also chair of the North East Assembly, said: 'Hearts and minds have to be won over. This is a whole new tier of government and voters are likely to be sceptical that it will make any real difference. This is a Trojan horse as far as we're concerned for regional assemblies with greater powers.'