Anger at boundaries switch

Geraldine Hackett finds the effective removal of Sir John Banham as president of the Local Government Commission has reopened some old wounds. The Government's decision to re-open the issue of restructuring local government has been met with resentment and dismay in those counties expected to come under fresh scrutiny.

The effective dismissal of Sir John Banham as chairman of the Local Government Commission came out of the blue. Ministers were apparently unhappy that he had proved unwilling radically to re-draw the local government map.

Writing in the Financial Times this week, a clearly bitter Sir John hinted that he had been the victim of a fix and that the Labour front-bench had at least colluded in his removal.

John Gummer, Environment Secretary, told the Conservative local government conference he had decided on a further limited review and new guidelines because the Banham proposals lacked consistency. The new guidance, to be published shortly, is expected to promote single-tier authorities for large urban areas, and the present two-tier system of county and district councils for surrounding rural areas. He pointed out that the commission had suggested unitary status for Southampton, but had denied it to Northampton. Likewise, it had been suggested the New Forest could run its own affairs, but not Warrington.

However, Mr Gummer has gone further than re-opening decisions on former county boroughs such as Blackburn and Peterborough. He is also suggesting that he might review the question of whether Rushcliffe - the constituency of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor - should be single tier.

Mr Gummer might also, he said, consider whether there is a case for a separate Huntingdonshire - John Major's constituency.

On the Labour side, Jack Straw has long argued for Blackburn - also to be part of the review - to be made a single-tier authority.

According to Mr Gummer, the exercise is to be carried out quickly and he intends to leave large areas of the country alone.

However, the proposals will involve Lancashire, Essex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Gloucestershire having to make representations again.

Andrew Collier, chief education officer in Lancashire, (unitary status is to be considered for Blackburn and Blackpool) says the Government has generated resentment among authorities that have already been through a thorough exercise.

"We will now be faced with at least a year of uncertainty and we are having to give time and energy putting a case that has already been well aired," he said.

In Essex, the county council will argue that Basildon and Thurrock should not become education authorities. (Banham has already suggested unitary status for Southend). Eric Hardy, senior manager in the education department, believes such changes are not justified on the grounds of cost. "The schools want to remain with the local authority," he said.

John Roberts, senior assistant education officer in Northamptonshire, claims Mr Gummer is ignoring public opinion by including Northampton in the review. Any division of the education service, he said, would lead to more costly provision.

Labour is constrained in opposing the Government's plans because as a party it is committed to unitary authorities. Its grand plan for regional authorities has more logic if local government is a single tier. Imposing regional assemblies on a map that already has elected county councils lays the party open to being accused of adding another layer of bureaucracy.

Sir John's argument for the scheme he has produced is that his suggestions were based on taking account of what the local population wanted. In his Financial Times article, he makes the point that he recommended unitary authorities where they were wanted.

The review of shire England, he writes, was fraught with difficulties. The next chairman may not find it any easier.

Towns formally accepted for unitary status: Milton Keynes; Luton; Darlington.

Towns to be reviewed for unitary status: Blackburn; Northampton; Thurrock; Blackpool; Peterborough; Basildon; Warrington.

District councils to be reviewed for unitary status: Thames Gateway (Gravesham and Dartford); Gloucester; Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe (Notts); Exeter; Halton (Cheshire).

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