Camden rebels against change

20 Jan 00
Labour's political reform of local government faces its strongest grassroots opposition yet with elected members of a London council threatening unlawful action.

21 January 2000

Labour-controlled Camden wants to retain a committee structure rather than adopt the changes favoured by Number 10. The councillors, who voted against government reforms on January 17, said they would continue to fight their case even if meant the secretary of state, John Prescott, having to intervene.

'I think we will go to the wire on this and break the law. We will not change our stance,' said Gerry Harrison, a Camden councillor and vocal opponent of the proposed changes.

Harrison, who accused New Labour of acting like 'old Stalinists', said Camden could prove a test-bed for opponents of proposed reform across the country. He said many councils wanted to adopt their own solution rather than have one imposed on them by ministers.

'I am democratic and I don't think Hilary Armstrong is,' said Harrison. He pointed to a consultation among residents in the borough last summer which showed little support for the options proposed by the government.

Confrontation, though, looks likely, as ministers indicated this week they are equally resolute. 'The committee system is not an option,' a government source said.

This goes straight to the heart of Labour's dilemma over reform as, despite ministers' enthusiasm, councils remain stubbornly opposed to 'modernisation'.

The Local Government Bill – which goes to committee stage in the House of Lords next week – sets out 'three initial' forms for new executive arrangements: a directly elected mayor; a council leader who heads or appoints an executive; or a directly elected mayor with a council manager.
Although the secretary of state can add further models, the bill categorically states that the committee system is in 'need of reform'.

In the light of this week's meeting, Camden, a Beacon council, has requested to see Armstrong to put its case for an 'improved committee system'.

This plea looks likely to fall on deaf ears. 'Ministers want to see what they are coming up with. If they are coming to argue for the status quo it will be a fairly fruitless meeting,' said the government source.

Harrison, co-ordinator of the Labour campaign for open local government, said a national rally scheduled for this weekend in Birmingham would demonstrate the opposition to reform.


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