Friday, July 27, 2007

Labour set to abolish opposition run councils

The announcement on Wednesday of the scrapping of the shire districts in the North East will amount to the biggest reform of local government since the reorganisation of 1974. It will also mean the abolition of most of the non-Labour run councils in the North East and their replacement with what are, under current circumstances, predominantly Labour authorities.

I am actually a supporter of single tier local government. For 20 years now I have been a member of Gateshead Council and I can see the benefits of a single local authority being responsible for local services that are run by elected local government (there are of course a vast number of local services run by non-elected quangos but that's a different issue.) The issue in the recently announced changes that has been ignored is how large an area a council should cover.

There is also another significant issue which was trampled on in the rush to get these proposals through. The people who live in the areas affected by the proposals should have the final decision. In the 7 shire districts in Co Durham, a referendum was held which gave people a choice between the existing 2 tier system and a single Co Durham authority. The people voted overwhelmingly for the existing system - and the turnout for the referendum was higher than it was for local elections so this constituted a clear expression of pulic support for the option that has now been rejected by central government.

In Co Durham, the Lib Dems run Durham City whilst the independents run Teesdale. There is no overall control in Wear Valley and in both Sedgefield and Derwentside, Labour are perilously close to losing overall control. Only in Chester le Street and Easington do Labour councillors have a significant majority.The proposal to replace them with a unitary Co Durham means imposing a giant near-one-party-state on the districts which currently have, generally speaking, a diversity of political views (other than the Conservatives who barely exist at all anywhere in the County.) The current County Council is about 85% Labour.

In Northumberland, the proposal is to replace the districts with a single Northumberland County Council (which is currently predominantly Labour though not to the extend Durham is). The alternative choice was to have 2 single tier authorities, one for the rural areas, the other for the urban south east of the county.Labour's writ barely runs in the more rural areas of Northumberland on the districts. On Tynedale, the only Conservative run council in the North East, Labour are the 3rd party. In Alnwick and Berwick Councils, Labour barely registers. Diversity is aplenty in Northumberland as on Castle Morpeth, Labour and Conservatives run the council jointly, specifically excluding the Lib Dems (one of their jointly stated aims was to exclude us from power). That experiment in comradely back scratching will off course disappear as well. Only two of the six district councils are Labour run in the county: Wansbeck and Blyth Valley, and both have recent histories of a strong Lib Dem presence.

If these changes go ahead, the effect on pluralist representation across the region will be quite devastating. The only independent council, the only Tory council and one of the two Lib Dem councils in the North East will disappear and be replaced by Labour councils (unless of course we are able to wrest control of them from Labour - in the case of Co Durham clearly that will be difficult though as we have shown with seizing and retaining control of Durham City, Labour are vulnerable to us).

Across the region it will mean that, other than Newcastle (Lib Dem run), and Stockton (another authority where Labour and Tory councillors are in bed together) every council is either run by Labour, or has an independent mayor but with a Labour majority on the authority.As I said earlier, I support unitary local government but what is proposed here is far too large and destroys political diversity. They are an attack on democracy that flies in the face of clearly expressed views by the people. They should be dumped.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Whilst I sympathise with your concerns for political pluralism, I think it has to be said that these issues are not as straightforward as all that.

Shropshire is also being made unitary in the near future, and we have had a similar kerfuffle over it. In our case, though, the government is handing the Tories a near-one party county.

This didn't stop many of the Tory run town councils from opposing the move, however, including the use in Shrewsbury of a postal "referendum" whose framing of the question and background information pack was risibly biased.

Ultimately, you can either believe that single-tier local government is a good thing or not, surely? It is then up to you to persuade the electorate that they need to vote differently. And they may not need so much persuading. People are cannier than they are given credit for being, much of the time. If the makeup of the council looks too Labour weighted, then opposition parties will pick up momentum easily.