Friday, June 22, 2007

Why I don't support a Unitary Cumbria

The government's consultation on the proposal to replace all the County and District councils in Cumbria with one unitary authority closes today. This was my submission, explaining why I do not support the proposal.


Statement of Opposition to the proposals for one Unitary council in Cumbria

I am writing in response to the consultation on new Local Government Structures to oppose the proposal from Cumbria County Council for one unitary council covering the whole of Cumbria.

I believe that Cumbria is far too large and disparate an area for any one council to adequately serve the needs of the area. Cumbria is physically larger than many "sub regions." Such a council cannot realistically be considered "local" in any meaningful sense.

The government has set out five criteria against which bids for new local structures should be judged:

Affordability
Strategic Leadership
Neighbourhood Engagement
Cross Section of Support
Service improvement

I believe that the proposal fails on all five of these but especially on Strategic Leadership and Neighbourhood engagement.

Affordability

I am totally unconvinced that the proposal would save money. All too often when structures are changed the net effect in terms of redundancy payments, restructuring, moving costs, and general chaos cost far more than was originally envisaged. It is more likely that a unitary Cumbria would put increased burdens on the local or national taxpayer.

Strategic Leadership

Regardless of whether a new generation of Nuclear plants is commissioned, West Cumbria is, and is likely to remain, central to any realistic national strategy to deal with legacy issues from the Nuclear industry. We are the centre of waste storage, reprocessing, and decommissioning activities.

The community in West Cumbria understands this and is engaging with the issues involved.
Unfortunately, some councillors and communities in the East of Cumbria have proved in recent months that they are close enough to feel frightened but not close enough to be informed about the issues. The existing County council has recently taken some very unhelpful positions, both from the national perspective and that of West Cumbria, about the Nuclear industry.

The Unitary Cumbria proposal risks depriving West Cumbria of its distinctive voice on this issue, with potentially devastating consequences for the local economy in Copeland and Allerdale, and in the process derailing national nuclear strategy.

The Nuclear issue is the most obvious example of an issue where a unitary Cumbria might fail to provide strategic leadership, but there are other similar risks, and these are not simply a case of issues where the East of the county might not understand the West: the same is true in reverse and between North and South of the county. Comparatively few South Lakeland electors would have a good understanding of the issues involved in the Carlisle renaissance, not would people in Workington necessarily have a good knowledge of the issues facing Kirkby Lonsdale.

Neighbourhood Engagement

It is inconceivable that any Cumbria-Wide authority could take decisions affecting local areas without being remote without extensive arrangements to consult local communities through of local panels and fora. Indeed, Cumbria county's bid does provide for such "Community Boards." However, any such arrangements must fall into one of two traps. Either they will be purely consultative, in which case local democratic wishes can and sometimes will be arbitrarily over-ridden by people whose democratic mandate derives from distant communities many miles away and who do not understand the issues. Or they will have real power and autonomy, in which case they can only be a less formal, second-class versions of the district and borough councillors who it is proposed to abolish. It is also clear that the County's bid does not contain a clear explanation or proposal for what local powers, if any, will be devolved to "Community Boards" and what will be devolved to Town and Parish councils, where they exist.

Cross Section of Support

I have yet to meet an ordinary member of the public, not counting councillors or council employees, who is at all interested in the proposal for a Unitary Authority for the whole of Cumbria or who is keen on the idea. During the recent local elections I met hundreds of voters, very few of whom regarded this as a key issue, and none of whom supported a unitary Cumbria.

A MORI poll for the "Better Government for Cumbria" group set up by the districts found that 72% of people asked thought that one council would be too remote and out of touch to be effective, 69% thought Cumbria is too bit a county for one council to offer all services, and 77% would prefer that the existing councils worked together more effectively. I share all these opinions and believe it to be representative of local opinion.

Service improvement

The necessary reorganisation involved in setting up a unitary Cumbria would be a huge distraction from providing better services. I believe the result would be Parkinson's Law on a massive scale.

The one advantage of the proposals is that they would break the hold of the Labour party on West Cumbria. However, while I would like see this achieved through the ballot box, I do not want to see it happen through the creation of an over-large, unwieldy council which is in danger of collapsing under its own bureaucratic weight and will not meet the needs of the area

For all these reasons I urge the government to reject the proposal for a unitary Cumbria

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