Thursday, February 09, 2006

If voting changed anything they'd abolish it

Last night the BBC was reporting government plans to scrap the the local government elections in 2007, pending another round of local government reorganisation. This would cover elections for pretty much every shire district in England.

The idea is that the government's white paper, due to be published in June, will provide for county councils and shire districts to be abolished and replaced with unitary authorities with populations between 250,000 and 1,000,000. Because these will be fairly large authorities there is also talk of some ill-defined neighbourhood governance, which the minister David Miliband is supposed to be very keen on.

Miliband is considered to be an advocate of localism within the government, but I can't help feeling that this will actually be a step backwards for local government. Councillors and officers alike spend too much time bemoaning the problems of the two-tier system, without a thought for the shortcomings of the alternative. Although the two-tier system certainly has its irritations, at least now we have districts that are usually but not always based on recognisable communities and a higher tier based on historic counties.

This will then be replaced by larger authorities, which have neither common history nor a sense of community identity. Either this will make local government and governance more remote from the people it serves or it will be necessary to re-create the two-tier system through a stengthened network of town and parish councils, thus defeating the whole point of the reorganisation.

So a set of proposals intended to make local government both more local and more efficient will, I suspect, fail on both counts. In turn local authorities that are not based on recognisable communities will be less popular with their citizens (as were the 'artificial' counties of Avon and Cleveland), which will in turn by used by governments in the future as a reason not to trust local authorities with more powers.

Sadly, I doubt whether the powers that be within local government recognise this threat, let alone have the will to fight it.

No comments: