28 May 2004
Proposals for Labour's first major shake-up of local government since gaining power were unveiled this week in anticipation of the advent of regional government later this year.
The Boundary Committee for England outlined options for the shift to unitary authorities in three northern regions that will be triggered if voters back elected regional assemblies in referendums expected in November.
The committee, which published its plans on May 25, has drawn up new council structures for six areas if directly elected assemblies in the Northeast, the Northwest and Yorkshire and the Humber win popular support.
Ministers have insisted that in areas with two-tier local government, one must be abolished before assemblies are set up. Voters in the referendums will be asked a second question inviting them to indicate which option they would prefer.
The BCE has put forward two possibilities for each of the six counties – Cheshire, Cumbria, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland and North Yorkshire – that will need to be reformed.
It has suggested either turning the existing county council into a unitary authority, or creating a series of 'super-districts' by merging existing districts into larger unitary authorities.
If the first option is selected in all six areas, the 40 existing councils will be cut to just seven: Blackpool, an existing unitary authority, will remain alongside the restyled Lancashire County Council. Even if voters in all areas choose the second option, the number of authorities will tumble to 21.
Committee chair Pamela Gordon said members had put together proposals that would ensure the new authorities could deliver quality services.
'Our principal objective has been to ensure our options offer realistic prospects of meeting the needs of people living in all the communities concerned, through the creation of strong, sustainable and potentially high-performing unitary authorities.'
But the Local Government Association criticised the proposals for being predicated on a false premise. 'Reorganisation is disruptive and costly and we don't think that it necessarily has to take place to make regional government work. The idea that one-size-fits-all is not right,' a spokesman said.
Privately, however, local government leaders acknowledge that they have lost the argument over reorganisation. The plans have been submitted to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and there are now six weeks during which representations can be made.
Ministers will announce in the summer whether they have accepted the committee's recommendations. If they reject them, further proposals will have to be drawn up because the government is committed to offering voters at least two options for local government reform.
Don Price, campaign officer for Campaign for the English Regions, said this was unlikely to happen.
'The proposals are not very controversial. It's what the local authorities expected themselves so the minister is likely to rubber-stamp them. It's now clear the votes will be held in November.'
An ODPM spokeswoman said: 'The Boundary Committee has done some very important work and we will ensure that voters get the information they need to make an informed decision.'