Local Government Reorganisation - Whither Lichfield or Wither Lichfield.

Local Government is undergoing a lot of change at the moment. The services it offers are having to change to reflect social changes - for example the growing numbers of elderly people. Finance is short so priorities must be continually reviewed and changes made in structures and service delivery to make the most of the money available. Areas such as education and housing are becoming more independent. Associated areas such as the Health Service are changing out of all recognition and this may result in further change in local government. Finally people's expectations of services are changing; users and clients are demanding higher standards of customer care and expect services to be improved and reformed.

Added to this is a far-reaching local government reorganisation set in motion two years ago by the then Secretary of State, Michael Hasletine. In July 1991 he announced a three part reform of local government - finance (Council Tax), internal management (measures to improve the quality of councillors) and structure (reorganisation of counties and districts). Studies were then to find out how to take these reforms forward.

In the case of reorganisation a special Local Government Commission was set up in July 1992, chaired by Sir John Banham, previously in charge of the Audit Commission which oversees local government finance. There are 14 commissioners and a small staff.

The Commissions remit was for the Commissioners, acting in pairs, to visit every county area in England in five stages to make proposals for new 'unitary' local authorities, i.e. Councils with all powers in their areas. Costs were to be kept to the same and the Commissioners were expected to identify and respect local community areas.

In its first year the Commission has dealt with five areas and the results, to say the least, have been very different in almost every area. One thing is clear; in almost every case the recommendations have been for larger councils than exist at present. The first report, for the Isle of Wight, recommended a single council for the whole of the island replacing the County Council and two district councils, in line with local thinking. The next report for Derbyshire proposed the now famous 'Derbyshire Doughnut' by which a new Derby City Council would get unitary status, but be surrounded by a single new authority for the whole of the rest of Derbyshire replacing the County and the other six districts. Elsewhere Somerset was to become a unitary county but Gloucestershire was to be split in three. One of the new councils to be set up there was the Forest of Dean with a population of just 75,000. For Lincolnshire the Commissioners recommended the retention of the status quo, i.e. no change to the County Council and the District Councils.

In almost every case these proposals ran into a great deal of criticism, so much so that the new Secretary of State, John Selwyn Gummer issued revised guidance, just when the commissioners were due to visit Staffordshire in November 1993. The revised guidance explicitly said that the status quo would no longer be acceptable and that very strong arguments would be required if the Commission wanted to put forward very large or very small unitary authorities. The requirement that reorganisation should result in no extra cost was also relaxed to allow a small increase, but it was made plain that such increases would be paid by local council tax payers in the areas affected. More attention is to be given to the role of parish councils which are seen as possible counterpoints to the larger councils they find themselves situated in. The timescale for each county review was also shortened and the commission is now required to complete all reviews by the end of 1994.

Where does this leave Lichfield where there is a County Council, a district council and a large parish council (confusingly known as the City Council)? The new review timetable for Staffordshire had still not been published at the time of writing but is expected to begin in January 1994. The commission will seek information for six weeks and it is during this period that the Civic Society expects to send in its views. Recommendations will then be published six weeks later and local comment will be sought during a further nine week period. A final report will then be prepared and sent to the Secretary of State who will finally announce a decision possibly in the remainder of 1994 but more likely during 1995. The new councils will then be set up, ready to start work from April 1996.

Given the guidance it is unlikely that Lichfield can stand alone as a unitary authority. Equally it is unlikely that Staffordshire can be a single large council. So some amalgamation of areas looks likely. This raises the question of who would make the best bedfellows. Lichfield District Council would like to merge with Tamworth; but what about East Staffordshire, too small to stand alone but nowhere else to go? A combined Lichfield, Tamworth and Burton wouldn't have a single natural centre. The Health Authorities of Mid and South East Staffordshire are merging and a new local authority could mirror their boundaries, creating a large South Staffs with 575,000 population. Such a large authority would probably only be acceptable if arrangements were made for parishing it throughout to allow local opinion to be represented. The new authority would not be overshadowed by Birmingham and the West Midlands and could defend local interests particularly in planning and local development.

A number of issues need to be taken into account when deciding what recommendations the Civic Society might be put forward to the Commission. Certainly our nearness to Birmingham is an important concern and a small authority might not be able to resist pressure for development or defend the area's interests. It is also true that smaller local authorities may not have sufficient 'critical mass' to employ the diverse range of specialists to meet local needs. This is particularly important on planning and conservation issues where local knowledge is required which cannot be bought in and must instead be developed within the area. But local identity could be lost in a bigger area, though it's conceivable that the City Council could be retained within a larger Council as a second tier to represent local interests and to act as a sounding board for local opinion.

The experience of the local government review has been very mixed to date. As developments occur we hope to keep membership informed via the Newsletter. The Society needs your views if it is to submit recommendations to the Commission.

So, to end with, some questions for Civic Society members to ponder. Will it be whither Lichfield as a distinct community able to express its point of view or will the City wither inside a large and distant Council?

James Kelly
November, 1993