EU Regionalisation plans for England develop as Council respond to White Paper
British Church Newspaper – 16 February 2007
British Church Newspaper
The long standing plans of the EU and the government to administer England by 12 separate regional assemblies, leading to the phasing out of our Westminster Parliament, is proceeding slowly but surely, as local Councils respond to the Government's White Paper, published on 26 October, titled 'Strong and Prosperous Communities'.
The White Paper takes forward plans to abolish the 'two tier system' of County and District Councils, replacing them with so called 'unitary authorities'. However, the government abandoned its earlier plans to scrap County Councils altogether by 2008, due to of concerted and sustained opposition from the shire Counties. The plan to carve up England into 12 regional assemblies has been promoted by Church of England Bishops, as we have frequently reported in British Church Newspaper.
The White Paper asked Councils to 'voluntarily' put forward proposals for a unitary structure (one council) or to 'apply on a joint basis for pathfinder status to pioneer new models of two tier working' (i.e. keeping the same basic structure as now but making it work differently). In many areas, vested interests at county level have led to proposals to retain County Councils, turning them into unitary authorities by scrapping local District Councils.
The shape of things to come is well illustrated in Durham. There, Durham County Council administers an area already quite different from the area of historic County Durham, due to boundary changes since 1974. Now Durham C.C. wants to make itself a 'unitary authority', by scrapping eight District Councils. This new 'super Council' would cover nearly 1 million people and would signal the closure of local Town Halls, local District Councils and their Councillors. Far from increasing local democracy, it would centralise power, taking it away from local communities at a stroke. Despite this, Durham C.C. issued a statement last month saying: "Our vision for the future came a step closer on 25 January when we submitted proposals for unitary local government to the Department for Communities and Local Government. To Provide stronger strategic and community leadership, give more power to local communities, improve council performance and achieve better value for money, it would be in the best long term interests of County Durham if it was served by a new single 'all purpose' unitary council".
But Durham County's proposals are being bitterly opposed by the Districts. Durham City Council is fighting to retain its independence, and six other District Councils prefer the 'pathfinder solution' which would probably result in County Durham being split into three unitary authorities, with the eventual abolition of the County Council. The destruction of historic County Durham would then be complete, having been aided and abetted, ironically, by the former Bishop of Durham, one of the initial leaders of the campaign for a regional assembly in the North East. That was emphatically rejected in a referendum by the people of the North East, in November 2004, by an overwhelming 78% to 22%.
Shropshire County Council, which no longer runs Telford and north east Shropshire, has proposed making itself into a 'unitary authority' but again there is opposition from local Districts. The County Council is currently running a poll to gauge local opinion.
The European model of local government envisages only 'super' unitary authorities in the future, answerable to regional assemblies. In this process of creating unitary authorities, England's traditional County boundaries, which remained unaltered for hundreds of years, and in some cases as long as 1,300 years until the Edward Heath reforms of 1974, will be further altered possibly beyond recognition or destroyed altogether.