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The Case for a new Local Democratic Order
by Roger Warren Evans 1996
part of "Building a New Britain"
The Next Stage
We set out in this paper our model for the development of a UK Constitution. Our model is robust in demographic terms, and the paper by Michael Coombes (University of Newcastle) demonstrates; and demographic reality, while not finally determining any constitutional issue, certainly corresponds with local political realities.
Our new solutions, for village and neighbourhood, town, region and province, would mobilise popular interest in the government of our country on a scale never seen before, reinvigorating our public life. Decisive action is needed, we argue, to overcome the sense of distance and alienation which most of our fellow citizens feel, when faced with our institutions of government: participation in government ought to be thrown open much more widely, to younger generations and to those who risk social exclusion.
New recruits would be brought into public life at every level, renewing democratic processes and giving new assurances against the abuse of power. As many as 250,000 neighbourhood councillors would be brought into the sphere of public life, furthering the process begun (albeit on a much more limited scale) by the recruitment of school governors at both secondary and primary level. A reinvigorated system of District Council government would create a reservoir of public representatives from whom quango appointments could be made, without necessitating more radical structural reforms. The "union" if the United Kingdom would be conserved, for we propound a single set of constitutional options capable of adoption for every part of the UK. And the relationship we propose between regional and provincial government would accommodate the national aspirations of both Scotland and Wales.
In terms of the Parliamentary process, these reforms could be achieved simply, and with the minimum of legislation. We do not argue for another consultative Royal Commission, as with Redcliffe-Maud. Parliament would first introduce "paving legislation" to establish a clear framework of principle, allowing for subsequent consultation on boundaries by was of an Advisory Boundary Commission, before proceeding to implementation by of a subordinate legislation at a second stage. All the principal features of the new system would be set out in the paving legislation, giving Parliament and the public ample opportunity for deliberation and debate, and flagging up for the country as a whole the changes that were contemplated; that period would be followed by an extended process of local consultation by a new Boundary Commission (click **) to establish regional and provincial boundaries for recommendation to Parliament, and neighbourhood boundaries for recommendation to the future regional authorities.
Keep the Districts
Our starting-point is that process of conversion to unitary districts should continue, and that the district council should be the primary "delivery unit" of local government. Many district councils do correspond with identifiable, bearing their name and giving them political expression; in other areas, the process of consolidation has deprived the district of that character, and in due course district boundaries could if required be re-adjusted to reflect such factors. Within our great conurbations, borough and district councils commonly also give expression to former "town" identities, and it is desirable that they should continue to do so.
District councils would remain the authorities responsible for the delivery of all local government personal services, in education, libraries, recreation and the arts, socials services, housing, refuse disposal: they would be unitary (or better, "all-purpose") in the sense that the citizen would look to the district council alone for the delivery of all personal services, eliminating the confusion and division of responsibility that has characterised the 1972 county/district system. By retaining all district boundaries (following April 1997, under the reforms currently under way), and by retaining at district level all the functions assigned to them under the unitary system, one would minimise administrative disruption. The smaller districts which had not "gone unitary" under Banham or Cooksey would assume new functions; it is appreciated that this would in the first instance result in a small number of much smaller all-purpose districts than obtaining elsewhere, but this could be accepted (it is argued) in the changed context of integrated city regional government. There would also be some shift of local government staff to the strategic city regional authorities, but that would be limited. Special provision would have to be made for the exceptional case, namely that of the unitary county: their treatment would depend on the extent to which they corresponded, in the Boundary Commission's view, with the boundaries of the city region (if any) to which they most nearly related; and it accepted that their treatment might remain anomalous.
Districts would be supplemented in two ways.
The regions would for the most part be "city regions", reflecting the distribution of population and the urbanised form of modern civilisation. But small-regional government is equally well suited to the larger rural areas comprising networks of the smaller towns and villages, and which remain outside the sphere of influence of the cities. For while it is unarguable that the political case for reform is driven by the needs of city governance, the same process offers important democratic opportunities for the entire national community.
The new configuration - neighbourhood/district and region - would constitute the basic "building block" of the new constitutional settlement. Districts and their component neighbourhoods would be grouped into the urban or rural regions of which they formed a part, under an entirely new from of regional assembly. The regions would be those suggested by the Coombs Report, although the precise configuration would be the subject of local investigation and consultation by the Boundary Commission. Each of the Coombes Regions is capable of discharging the most advanced functions of government that might be required of them. Only four comprise less than 500,000 population, and they all exceed 400,000 See Table. Many of the new regions would closely resemble existing counties, and the new regional authorities would draw upon all the perceptions and resources of county government.
The primary structure would not be discretionary. As with the District/Boroguh government at the present time, it would be of universal application throughout the territory of the UK, throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, for town and for country, for London and for "the Provinces". This system would represent a practical expression of the Union, delivering to every citizen a common structure of public life: citizens would know where they stood, and could look to these three elected councils to be responsible for the governance of their local community. In some parts of the UK, they would be supplemented by provincial authorities, interpolated between region and nation.
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