Lindsay Jenkins: The government is riding roughshod over voters to abolish local councils
Lindsay Jenkins' latest book Disappearing Britain, The EU and the Death of Local Government puts together the jigsaw revealing the agenda for the break up of Britain.
While Blair is away in Brussels negotiating the EU constitution, on which the British people may yet have a say in a referendum, at home his government is spurning local democracy. Unlike the Brussels’ negotiations, that is not headline news.
Shrewsbury District Council asked voters last January if they wanted their council to be abolished and its role taken over by Shropshire County Council as a unitary authority. The answer was clear: 18,000 people, two thirds of those asked, said no, they wished to keep their local council.
Is the government acting on their views or even taking any notice? Until the High Court intervened this week the answer was no.
Shrewsbury and Atcham together with Congleton and Harrogate district and borough councils, with the express backing of another 19 councils, took the Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, to court and won the chance of a judicial review. The QC acting for the councils went straight to the heart of the matter. Local authorities, he said, are ‘as a matter of law neither the servants nor agents of central government’. So Ruth Kelly could not ride roughshod over the wishes of local people.
This latest phase in the wholesale restructuring of Britain’s local government started with last year’s White Paper Strong and Prosperous Communities which invited councils to apply to become unitary authorities. 26 applications have been whittled down to 16 and this week is the end of what the government calls the consultation phase.
But those directly affected, the local voters, are not being consulted. So not much of a consultation. The government is only sounding out ‘stakeholders’, mainly national organisations and quangos. The list online is worth scanning.
If the government’s will prevails, 88 councils may be abolished with their powers handed mainly to county councils re-formed as unitaries like Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Shropshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, and North Yorkshire, all of which are campaigning for the change under the slogan ‘One Council’. Cities like Exeter and Chester may take over powers currently exercised by the county council.
Of course the government’s stated key reasons are to save money and increase efficiency. That is a smokescreen.
When this country signed up to the then EEC, implicit was agreement to create regional government. The 1957 treaty of Rome includes in its preamble ‘reducing the differences existing between the various regions.’ Over the years what is meant by region has been furthered defined by population and is now enshrined in a EU regulation of 2003. The EU must be divided into regions, sub-regions and sub-sub- regions and cities.
The Blair government introduced regional government – the UK has 12 regions – but the next layer down, the sub regions, had not until now been systematically imposed. The government’s of Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and John Major have all had a hand in creating some unitary authorities, the EU’s sub-regions. For example in 1998 Berkshire County Council was replaced by six unitaries.
For those who doubt that these changes in British local government have anything to do with Brussels, all countries recently joining the EU, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, have had to change their local government structure to the three-tier system beforehand.
Founding members like France are still, like us, going through piecemeal reorganisation. France now has 22 regions, which threaten to take powers from the 96 départéments.
Regions across the EU largely take their orders from Brussels with limited room for local manoeuvre. In this country other than the regions of London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there is not even the usual titular democracy – democracy as we understand it is not of course a feature of the EU.
So perhaps it is not surprising that in this latest upheaval, now halted by the High Court, the wishes of local people have not been consulted.