Cllr Brian Silvester, Leader of Crewe and Nantwich Borough Council, describes a damning new academic report of the Local Government Review.
Last year the Government called for bids from the two tier shire
counties in England to form Unitary Councils. The Government did this
even though they knew they did not have the legal powers to do so. In
March 2007 the Department of Communities and Local Government announced
that 16 of the 25 bids would go forward for consultation. In July 2007
nine Unitary Council bids were given the go ahead, Cheshire, Cornwall,
Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire, Wiltshire, Bedford, Exeter and
Ipswich. If all these new Unitary Councils are implemented it would
result in the loss of 35 Councils and the loss of thousands of jobs and
Councillors. This proposed major local government upheaval in many
parts of the country has been festering away for over a year with
precious little recognition in the press or other media. You can’t help
feeling that if this had been happening in the shires around London the
media would have been more interested.
Local Government experts, Professors Steve Leach of De Montfort
University and Michael Chisholm, Emeritus Professor at Cambridge
University, have produced a ‘no holds barred’ indictment on the
Government’s proposals for new Unitary Councils in England. The report
was compiled at the Authors’ own volition as an unprompted independent
assessment based on their direct experience with the 2006/07 process.
Both academics have a long standing interest in structural
re-organisations of Local Government and have published widely on post
1976 re-organisation initiatives. Their latest report reflects
concerns about the way the current re-organisation initiative is being
conducted. Pulling no punches, the report is a damning indictment of
the Government, its civil servants and the Local Government proposers
of change, who have simply failed to even consider the views of
residents or the electorate, never mind failed to put those views first.
In a clinical analysis, the report finds that:
- The process is so flawed it corrupts the body politic.
- ‘Dodgy’ financial data have been accepted with inadequate scrutiny.
- There seems to be scant concern for what ordinary people think.
- The Secretary of State has chosen to ignore the statutory procedures set out in the Local Government Act 1992.
- The Secretary of State has, instead, relied upon the expectation of obtaining retrospective powers under a new statute.
- Retrospective legislation is, in principle, pernicious.
- It is an example of what others have called an ‘elected dictatorship’.
- The Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has completely failed to honour the undertaking given in October 2006 to consult the public. Only one conclusion is possible, Ministers were aware that many unitary proposals would be unlikely to receive public endorsement.
- Members of the public have been right to be sceptical about the strength of the case for establishing unitary structures.
- The process was biased in favour of unitary outcomes.
- The DCLG has been seriously inconsistent and highly selective in its appraisal of the bids.
- The criteria used is muddled, most obviously that ‘Affordability’ is largely defined in terms of ‘Value for Money ’.
- In October 2006, it was stated that bids must conform to the five criteria, including the criterion of a broad cross section of support for the proposals. By July 2007, this had been diluted to reasonable likelihood after implementation.
- With respect to costs/savings, bidders have been very inventive in compiling their submissions’.
- With respect to the conflicting criteria of Strategic Leadership and Neighbourhood Empowerment, the bids ‘display considerable contortions in trying to comply’.
- In many of the county bids, the proposed size of the electoral divisions presents a risk to Councillors’ capacity to engage with the electorate.
I believe that this report is a devastating destruction of the whole Local Government Review (LGR). It is clear from this report that the LGR process has been badly flawed from the word go. Any self respecting Government would read this very damning report and withdraw their plans for new Unitary Councils forthwith. It is not too late to stop this flawed review and it should be stopped in the interest of good Local Government in this country.