John Fuller is Leader of South Norfolk Council. Here he lambasts Government proposals to reorganise local government in Norfolk, Suffolk & Devon
Last Friday marked the passing of a deadline for ‘stakeholders’ to tell the Boundary Committee what they think of proposals to restructure Local Government in Norfolk, Suffolk & Devon. If enacted, the plans would see 24 local councils abolished and replaced with four monopoly super-councils, one in each of Norfolk and Devon and two in Suffolk…. except that Lowestoft in Suffolk would be dragged kicking and screaming into Norfolk. Are you still with me?
Now, put to one side for the moment the ridiculousness of the notion of a single local council for Norfolk [plus Lowestoft] representing nearly a million people, rather more than Birmingham in over twenty times the size. Or another way, twice the size of Luxembourg with twice the population of a state with a permanent place at the EU top table. Or socially experimenting with single council so vast that, if it started at Hyde Park Corner, it would go past Brighton into the English Channel by about 20 miles. You get the idea.
In a withering critique, the distinguished Professor of Local Government Stephen Leach has worked out that a typical ward councillor’s workload in such an arrangement would amount to 75 hours per week, something outlawed in the 1830’s whilst others have realised that the sort of people Hazel Blear’s White Paper “Communities in Control” wants to encourage into public service: the young, the marginalised, disabled, and even those who cannot drive would be excluded from serving the only county yet to be connected to London by dual carriageway and with a lousy public transport system to boot.
Not surprisingly, the hapless Boundary Committee’s proposals have been
greeted with howls of derision and not just by the usual suspects of
local councillors but by the smallest Parish Councils, community groups
and the largest Big Beasts in Westminster. Only the monolithic Police
& Health authorities seem to be in agreement. No surprises there!
And even the County Council with the most to gain passed a resolution
preferring to leave things as they are thank you very much.
And to top it all, the mandarins in Whitehall have upbraided the
Committee’s chaotic process for failing to consider whether to see
whether it’s worth making the change at all, a decision together with
others which will be tested by Judicial Review in November.
But most surprisingly for a Committee dominated by academics, the
proposals characterised as “Bizarre” and “Nonsense” by local Labour MPs
are works of extraordinarily poor scholarship. Their credibility was
further undermined when a freedom of information request revealed that
the Committee ignored the recommendations of it’s specialist team and
instead chose their own three options including one that clumsily
attempts to lasso such Labour councillors that exist in Norwich,
Yarmouth & Lowestoft into a single authority in one of the most
clumsy state-sponsored gerrymandering attempts seen in modern times
anywhere outside Zimbabwe. The independent Electoral Commission must
wince every time it thinks about it.
And it’s all be compounded by the fact that no one has made the case
for change of a system that works rather well and in any event no one
can work out what the whole process will cost because the Committee
hasn’t a clue of how it might work except that it will increase the
layers of local Government with the creation of new quangos called
“Community Partnership Boards”. Oh yes, and they even propose getting
rid of our historic Mayors.
I could go on and on but the portents are not good . A similar exercise
started in Northumberland twelve months ago predicted £17m a year
savings is currently overspent by £55m already and you’ve guessed it,
it’s cuts or more rises in Council Tax to pay for it.
As the Federation of Small Business has commented
“Our concern is compounded by the complete lack of detailed information
on the costing of the different options; on information of how
structures would operate and how democracy would filter down from the
unitary authorities and up from the population at large.“
But help is at hand. Crucially, by failing to demonstrate any degree
of ‘cross-section of stakeholder support’ and being a complete
departure from the White Paper, the Minister has little choice but to
reject proposals that are against putting local councils and local
accountability at the heart of the delivery of local services for the
benefit of local people and local business.
But it does beg the question why the experts at the Boundary Committee
haven’t yet worked out for themselves that Big Government = Bad