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Two-tier obstructs joined-up services

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A new debate over the future organisation of councils started this week with claims two-tier government is preventing authorities from securing greater accountability over health and police.

With police and health chiefs criticising the two-tier system, local Government Association chairman Sir Simon Milton (Con) also took the unusual step of highlighting the structure of local government as an important issue in the drive to secure more powers for councils.

At an Institute for Public Policy Research conference, Sir Simon said introducing elected mayors with new powers would not necessarily be enough to boost local leadership. “Other issues are relevant and overlap, such as the debate over unitary authorities and so-called ‘co-terminosity’ where different geographical areas for public services don’t match up,” he said.

At a Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) conference last Thursday, Steve Green, chief constable of Nottinghamshire, urged local government to ditch the two-tier model.

He said: “Trying to get county councils and district councils to work together is like trying to get pandas to mate.”

The sentiment was echoed by NHS Confederation policy manager Joanna Webber, who said polls indicated the public did not want councils to play a role in health services, because they did not trust them to deliver.

Their comments came after prime minister Gordon Brown outlined plans to address the democratic accountability of health and police which threatened to sideline councils.

A policing green paper announced in the draft Queen’s Speech would allow directly elected police representatives to lead decision making. A National Health Service Reform Bill would make primary care trusts “more responsive to their local communities”.

Local government leaders expressed concern that councils will only play a tangential role, to the detriment of service provision and the democratic framework.

County Councils Network chairman Tim Palmer (Con) said: “It is a considerable concern both in the case of policing and health services.”

Their fears were not eased by comparatively weak proposals to make councils accountable for local services in the Community Empowerment, Housing & Economic Regeneration Bill.

Communities secretary Hazel Blears said the bill would give citizens “a right to ask for a stronger say” on local spending and “a right to force a debate” on local issues.

Amelia Cookson, head of service transformation at the LGIU, said the proposals were “lightweight” and might not require legislation.

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