Ministers Decide to Wipe out County Councils

Article excerpt

ALL 39 English county councils are to be abolished in what one minister has called the "biggest shake up in local government since the Domesday Book".

Thousands of senior management jobs will be cut and millions of pounds of council properties left empty as counties that go back to Saxon times cease to exist as administrative units.

The decision, taken recently by ministers involved in the local government review, represents a major shift in policy. This weekend the Association of County Councils called the idea outrageous.

It had been thought some counties would survive the search for "unitary" authorities to succeed the two-tier district and county council structure. However, senior ministerial sources told the Independent that is no longer so. There is little political disadvantage in the Government scrapping what were once bastions of Tory political power as since the last local elections in May only one county council, Buckinghamshire, is under Tory control.

The counties' fate will be settled by the Local Government Commission, due to present its findings before 1995. So keen is the Government to see the process complete that it has appointed two more commissioners to speed up the task.

Ministers say evidence of the intention to do away with the county councils is to be found in a "policy guidance" document issued by the Department for the Environment to the Commission this month, the meaning of which, they say, has not been fully grasped.

Although the document is dubbed "guidance", one minister called it "a formidable steer". It re-emphasises the benefits of single, all-purpose unitary authorities and asks the commission to give more weight to local consensus.

The crucial sentence sealing the fate of the county councils, said the minister, is on the fourth page: "Unitary authorities covering either a very large area or a very small population will need a specially strong justification, because of concerns in the former case about remoteness and in the latter about the effectiveness of service delivery. …