Addressing a sparsely attended Conservative local government conference at the weekend, the Prime Minister tried hard to deflect attention from the Government's latest change of direction on its planned dismemberment of the counties by pouring scorn on the "shambles" of Labour's plans for regional government. A vulnerable target maybe, but the diversion can have done little to set at rest the doubts and fears of his immediate audience or those who stayed away.
When his Environment Secretary, John Gummer, made his ungracious announcement in the House of Commons last week that Sir John Banham was to be replaced, and that his successor would have a new brief, it marked at least the fourth change of direction for the ill-starred Commission since it was first announced by Michael Heseltine in l99l.
The aim was to remove expensive and overlapping layers of local government by dividing counties up into unitary authorities, thus empowering ambitious district councils. A crucial part of the agenda was to break up the alien giants such as Humberside and Avon, created in l974 by a Conservative Government which had in its turn rewritten the advice of the Redcliffe-Maud Commission. Since local education authorities were at that time being written out of the script by Government opt-out schemes, it was assumed that nobody need bother too much about the educational functions of new unitary authorities.
At the time, Mr Heseltine was keen to recreate strong city government, with city mayors (a plan with which the Labour party had some sympathy), but which went out of the window as he moved on. His successor Michael Howard adopted a more laissez-faire approach, assuming that there need not be a uniform pattern across the country, and sowing the seeds for the confusion which followed, as Sir John decided that the only sensible course was to leave the decision-making to the local people he consulted on his peregrinations.
Sir John's well-publicised verdict that the cost of reorganisation would outweigh potential savings and not prove worth the upheaval can hardly have endeared him to ministers and it became increasingly obvious that the commission's apparently capricious proposals were not what they had ordered. And did anyone really want the expensive turmoil involved in switching local powers just before a general election?
When John Gummer took over he wanted to junk the whole thing, but political considerations kept it going until last week's latest twist in the story. Informed opinion has for some time assumed that recreating the big county boroughs was the likeliest (and perhaps the best) final outcome, whatever Banham said, but now a string of smaller towns is to be put into the picture too, and at least another year of uncertainty looms.
It is certainly yet another burden for the already battered counties, which now have to prepare for - or mobilise against - rushed operations to gouge out several more chunks from their map. This is hardly likely to save on the county hall bureaucracies which ministers have railed against. Contenders are already lining up for the many new senior administrative posts which will next year be advertised in the unitary authorities due to replace Cleveland, Avon and Humberside.
As to Labour, its regional plans are not very clear to many outside (or even inside) the party. To some extent a postscript to the Scottish and Welsh devolution plans, their strongest rationale is to bring us in line with the Europe of the regions, as well as to provide a measure of accountability to the regional structures of both civil service and quangos. Why not match up to the boundaries of training and enterprise councils or health authorities, something the l974 reorganisation failed to do? But no one would want yet another tier of government, and obviously Labour had hoped that the Conservatives would do the dirty work of abolishing the counties for them. It is easy to see why Sir John Banham is bitter about both.
Meanwhile, the best bet is still to expect more new - or old - county boroughs and maybe a string of other new local education authorities of variable size. Presumably it is too much to hope that the revamped commission might be briefed to have a mind to the services the new unitary authorities will be expected to deliver, and what their duties might be. Or how that might change under the next Government? However wayward a review instrument Sir John may have proved to be, it is difficult to dissent from his conclusion that all the pressures have been to placate the various interest lobbies, rather than to encourage strategic thinking about the future role, management and finance of local government.