Local Government Re-organisation by Stealth

You may have heard that, on 27 March 2007, sixteen councils bidding for unitary status have been short listed by government to go forward for "consultation". If you did hear that, my guess is that you are one of a very few, and that even fewer of you realise its significance. Here is a link (which will open in a new window) to the government's press release, for those who want to follow up the detail.

What I want to draw attention to it my "take" on what it may mean for you and the accountability of the people you elect if it goes ahead in Devon - and, indeed, Cornwall, though there's not a lot we can do about that.

Amongst those councils listed are Cornwall County Council and Exeter City Council. For the intensely curious, here is the latter's "decision letter" from the government department. You must make up your own minds about what this indicates about the likelihood of Exeter being allowed to break away from the County of Devon, as Plymouth and Torbay did some years ago, but my guess is that it is quite likely. The letter also gives a hint that a major reason for government allowing it is the hope that it will save money.

I am not convinced that any reorganisation of local government has ever reduced our taxes ... but, of course, I could be a cynic. What do you think?

What is not at all clear from the links is the effects that "losing" Exeter may have on the rest of Devon. Quelle surprise! When Plymouth and Torbay ceceded from Devon County Council (DCC), the administrative overhead of DCC had to be shared out amongst the remaining Devon Districts, so your share of the County precept (ie your Council Tax) went up. What is the betting that it will happen again when (if?) Exeter goes?

Meanwhile ...

Government is putting pressure on all District Councils (West Devon Borough Council is a district council) to operate join arrangements, ostensibly to offer cost savings, but more probably with the ultimate objective of squeezing District Councils out of existance altogether.
This would be consistent with the drive towards regionalisation - the process towards replacing councils with Regional Assemblies, which are easier for cental government to control.

What is happening at the moment is that an increasing number of District Council services are being funded through "Local Area Agreements", which are joint arrangements between two or more Districts and the County Council instead of money passing direct to the Districts by way of Revenue Support Grant. What happens in practice is that the County Council gets the money and allocates it to projects within the partnership's area. The effect of this is that the districts have to bid to the partnership for what would previously have been their own project, funded by Revenue Support Grant.

Sorry if that all seems complicated. That's because it is. It seems to me that the end result will be that the Devon Districts are being undermined to the point where they will cease to have any individual identities, the County Council will have control of almost all of what was once the Revenue Support Grant and the councillors that you elect will have nothing to work with beyond a few consultation exercises.

From there, it is but a step to roll up the whole machinery of Local Government and establish the Regional Assemblies as directly elected authorities. The effect of this on Tavistock will be to lose all its political influence.
At present, Tavistock sends seven members to West Devon Borough Council (WDBC), but only one to Devon County Council. Under the emerging Local Area Agreements, WDBC will typically have one representative in the Agreement. Under regional government, West Devon will be lucky to have any representative at all on the Regional Assembly.

It gets worse! Under the present Regional Assembly arrangements, elected members (councillors from the various counties and districts within the South West Region) are "supplemented" by "social and economic partners", appointed by government; these are people who have not been elected at all. Yet they are allowed to vote in the Regional Assemblies. The hand of central government is steadily taking both power and influence from locally elected assemblies and handing it over to its own place-men.

Why? What has government to gain from this?

I can only guess at the answer, but consider this. Rural areas have small populations, compared with towns and cities. Regional Assemblies cover large areas and include large towns and cities, so, when the electoral areas are carved up, the towns and cities are likely to dominate the seats in a Regional Assembly. The rural voice is likely to be swamped by the large conurbations. I'll leave you to work out the party politics of this - I try to avoid party politics.

One last point: how many Independent candidates do you think there will be in a Regional Assembly election? How many seats do you think they might be able to win?

I know what I think. How about you?

Updated 6 Apr 07