Regeneration in the shires;Unitary Authorities

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
The latest local government reorganisation round is drawing to a close after nearly eight years. Nicolas Barnard reports.

One of the final legacies of the last Conservative government is played out this week as a clutch of councils around England become the last local authorities to be reorganised.

The creation of 19 all-purpose unitary authorities from Blackpool to the Medway Towns brings to an end the mass reorganisation of local government - a process that has taken almost eight years to complete.

Along the way, five English counties have been abolished, most of the others reorganised, and 46 unitary authorities created. In Wales, eight counties have been replaced by 22 unitaries.

It's only the beginning of the end, though, as the experience of those authorities in the first, second and third waves suggest it will be months if not years before the new LEAs are "bedded in".

And the 19 which come into being this week can expect a mixed bag of fortunes: some innovation, some financial crises, some smooth transitions, some major upheaval.

Good things have come out of it. In the authorities where it has worked, there is a renewed sense of purpose and an ability to focus on a narrower range of problems than perhaps the counties with their mix of rural and urban could.

But - depending on your point of view, of course - there have been losers. Portsmouth's chief education officer was forced out 10 months into the city's first year in charge. Other authorities are struggling with cash crises or provoking opposition with major reviews of the services they have inherited. Several counties feel the loss of their urban areas sharply.

And where there have been gains, it is hard to find anyone who thinks it has been worth it. Roy Jobson, chairman of the Society of Chief Education Officers, says: "There has been an awful lot of disruption. What did they get out of it that they didn't have in the beginning?" The first hints of the upheaval to come appeared in 1990 with the publication of then-environment secretary Michael Heseltine's green paper. The Local Government Commission was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1992 to begin its deliberations.

It prompted years of soul-searching among local authorities who were unsure what the ground rules were. Conflicting messages from ministers didn't help - did the Government want to scrap the two-tier system entirely or not? How big did a unitary authority have to be?

Councils in Wales and the Isle of Wight were the first to go unitary, in 1995. Cleveland and Humberside were replaced by 12 unitaries in 1996, confirming a suspicion that the government's motive was partly to abolish the three unpopular counties created in 1974. 1996 was also the year that York left North Yorkshire.

Last year, 13 unitaries were created, carved out of shires like Hampshire and Derbyshire which continued the two-tier system without them.

This week the final 19 go solo including five created from the abolition of Berkshire. The list has markedly fewer large towns and cities. Gillingham and Rochester, Telford and the Wrekin, Bracknell Forest, Slough may all be well-known but they hardly have the clout of, say, Middlesbrough.

Mr Jobson suggests unitary status was right for big cities like Bristol. But the others have struggled. Necessity has been the mother of invention - too small to serve schools in the way the counties did, they have found different ways of doing it. But are they better ways?

Reorganisation has proved an extra headache for teachers just getting used to the national curriculum, testing and the Office for Standards in Education - although it has given them a say in shaping new authorities.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says some of his members were pleased to be shot of their old authority.

"But in some places, budgets have been squeezed and the quality of services on offer is not what they were," he says. "We shouldn't underestimate the economies of scale argument."

The rump counties have perhaps been hardest hit, losing the extra funding urban areas attract and forced to reorganise to cope with their smaller size.

But that has also been an opportunity for improvements. Hampshire, losing a quarter of its population to Portsmouth and Southampton last year, split its four divisions into seven areas, bringing it closer to schools. Hilary Thompson, acting deputy director, says: "We were able to anticipate the current focus on the LEA's role in school improvement.

"We've slimmed down management to keep a local presence."

The Tories originally favoured sweeping away entirely the two-tier system of counties and districts but England has ended up with a mish-mash - some unitaries, some two-tier shires, some "doughnuts" like Derbyshire - two-tier counties with a unitary town in the middle.

Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, says:

"There's no logic to it. Take Essex - why Southend but not Chelmsford or Colchester? Why Plymouth in Devon but not Exeter? Why has Berkshire been split into five and Suffolk been left alone?" But he concedes that there have been benefits. "They've attracted some young staff, people who really want to make something of this.

"One thing I've really noticed in unitary authority staff I come across is their enthusiasm. That's good because it will spin off into schools. Some will be very successful at raising standards."

Indeed, the new authorities provide fertile ground for a Government which has shown little inclination to stay on the sidelines.

Leader, page 18

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