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Counties cling to the map

The review of local government urges few changes. Clare Dean reports. The champagne is on ice, but the corks are not popping for six English counties which will have to wait until at least the New Year before they know if they have escaped abolition.

While the Local Government Commission has recommended no change for the six, the decision rests with the Government.

At least one district council, whose bid to take over the functions of its county council has been overlooked, is considering an appeal. And it has influential allies backing its cause.

Huntingdonshire, regarded as a flagship unitary authority by the Association of District Councils, is the Cambridgeshire backyard of the Prime Minister and former education minister Baroness Blatch.

It was considered a best bet to become one of the new all-purpose local authorities set to replace county councils, but that plan was torpedoed last week.

The Tory council meets on Wednesday (November 9) to decide what action to take and, according to district administrator Peter Watkin, many councillors will be pressing for a rethink.

"There was a historic county of Huntingdonshire and we felt we had a good case to become a unitary authority," said Mr Watkin. "We know that the Prime Minister has to take a detached view, but no doubt he will be looking at the commission's recommendations, as will many people throughout Huntingdonshire. "

The commission decided last week that there was insufficient support to warrant change in Cambridgeshire - although maintaining the status quo had not been offered as an option for the county.

In fact the authority - widely considered to be one of the most forward-thinking LEAs in England - actually recommended its own demise, believing that change was inevitable. Officers felt that the only way to safeguard services was to replace the county council and six district authorities with two unitary authorities. But the public, which made its voice heard through opinion polls taken by the commission and in campaigns organised by headteachers, governors and parents, would not wear it. And the commission listened: it has spent Pounds 250,000 in each county discovering what the public want.

Sir John Banham, its chairman, told the National Governors' Council this weekend: "We are avoiding forcing structural change on unwilling local communities." He expects that there will be no major change in 25 of the 39 English counties and the commission last week recommended no change in Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Kent, Lancashire and Oxfordshire.

The proposals follow decisions by John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, to keep the counties of Somerset, North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire while Avon and Humberside disappear.

It recommended changes for Bedfordshire, Hampshire and Buckinghamshire, which now need to be endorsed by Government and approved by Parliament.

Proposals in Bedfordshire would see a three-way split of the county, which the local authority claims has little support and which could cost up to Pounds 36 million over 10 years.

"I am at a loss to understand why the commission is picking on Bedfordshire, " said Denis Cleggett, county chief executive. "The commission has adopted a totally inconsistent approach to the review of local government throughout England. Far from improving services and accountability, its proposals for Bedfordshire, if implemented, would be costly, bureaucratic and disastrous for so many local services."

In Hampshire, there was uproar over proposals to create a unitary council for the New Forest, for initially the Commission had only recommended unitary councils for Portsmouth and Southampton with the rest of the county remaining two-tier.

Mike Hancock, county council leader, said only 3.6 per cent of the electorate in the New Forest wanted their own all-purpose council and said: "This isn't a mandate for change.

"The people of Hampshire are now faced with a structure on which they were not consulted. The implications for services and the extra costs have not been publicised. This really is a pig in a poke."

Southampton, which lost responsibility for education in the 1974 local government review, is looking forward to taking control of 73 primary and 14 secondary schools, as well as five special schools and diagnostic units, if the proposals are accepted.

But it could also find itself having to work with the Funding Agency for Schools as it is close to 10 per cent of secondary pupils being in opt-out schools.

Henry Pavey, from the council's local government review office, said: "The main thing we plan really is not to rock the boat. We are not a dictatorial authority. We believe in going out and consulting the people who use the service, so they can help us shape policy."

In Buckinghamshire - the last Tory-controlled shire county - the commission recommended four unitary councils. Opinion polls showed less than one in five people supported the move.

David Shakespeare, chairman of its policy and resources committee, said the county council would not object to a unitary authority of Milton Keynes, but added: "Beyond that, I think it would be sensible for the Government to call it a day."

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