Costly learning curve

Cleveland County Council is seeking leave to take its judicial review action against the Local Government Commission to the Court of Appeal.

By the end of the year many more local authorities in England will have tried to challenge the commission in the courts.

Is this merely local authorities fighting for their own survival at the expense of their council tax payers or are there fundamental deficiencies in the way the commission has attempted to carry out its task?

Certainly the commission does not appear to have gained nationwide respect for its work. That is sad. Obviously the commission's recommendations will not find favour with everyone and its task is largely a thankless one. However, there are some fundamental criticisms to be made.

First of all, it is self-evident that the commission is operating in a political environment. Therefore it would have been prudent for it to demonstrate its independence from central government. It has made some recommendations which are clearly unacceptable to the Government, which shows independence of spirit. However, Cleveland County Council's experience proves otherwise.

On 19 October 1993, Sir John Banham, chair of the Local Government Commission, wrote to the Secretary of State and said: “It will also be important that the commission and the Government, jointly, have some 'early wins' in the difficult initial stages of the review. There is likely to be general acceptance of our recommendations for Avon, Cleveland and Humberside; and it would be good to have these accepted while you sort out those areas in which (so far) support for particular unitary structures is limited and there is substantial opposition to change.”

As Lord Justice Staughton said in the High Court Judgment in our case: “That passage does not altogether sit well with the notion that the commission is an independent body and responsive to public opinion rather than the Government.”

That is a regrettable position for the commission to find itself in at this stage of the review.

Again it is vital that the residents of the area believe the review is being carried out competently, objectively and in a professional manner. That was not always the case in Cleveland. For example, the commission attempted to canvass the views of the public in Cleveland. It printed a leaflet asking for views to be expressed on a tear-off slip.

The leaflet had a number of flaws. It said its favoured option would save money. It did not say that other options would also save money and that its preferred option would save the least amount. It neglected to make any reference to the additional transitional costs which would be incurred.

Once again, Lord Justice Staughton commented: “We have serious reservations about the propriety of leaflets in that form [and]… about this aspect of the leaflets.”

As the commission's own national poll showed, cost was a major factor in determining the public's choice of local government options.

The commission has learned from some of its mistakes in Cleveland. It is now producing a more balanced leaflet which is to be delivered to every household in the area under review. However, criticisms of those leaflets still abound.

We, at least, have asked for public opinion in Cleveland to be canvassed under the new leaflet regime. So far, the people of Cleveland are being denied that. It seems regrettable that we should suffer for mistakes made by the commission during its learning process. Of course, it is even more regrettable that Parliament will be denied the benefit of seeing that vital information.

The commission's review has been an expensive exercise. Its recommendations, if implemented, will add to the level of public expenditure by an estimated u600 million. Outside of Rutland, there are few champions for its proffered changes. Will HM Treasury perhaps intervene and call it a day? We must wait and see.

David Ashton is acting county secretary for Cleveland County Council.