Thursday, February 11, 2010

Exeter Council saved!

Yesterday afternoon was spent engaging in some excited Tweeting at the announcement that Exeter unitary council has been given the go ahead by the Government (BBC News report).

The current round of discussions about the reorganisation of local government in Devon has been going on for five years. And this isn't the end: there first needs to be a vote in Parliament; Devon County Council is apparently fighting for a judicial review; and the Conservatives have promised to revoke the decision if they form the next government later this year.

However, the status quo would, I think, be not an unreasonable outcome. The key thing as far as I am concerned is that the option of a Devon unitary council is no longer part of the agenda. This option would have resulted in the abolition of Exeter's council altogether. I argued against this as the worst option from a democratic standpoint.

So I send my heartfelt thanks to all the Exeter councillors and other individuals who have fought the abolition of our city council over the last five years.

This hasn't been a party political issue - Exeter City Council has been almost unanimous in its opposition to abolition; Devon County Council has been almost unanimous in favour of abolition; with a variety of views from members of district councils. This has led to some interesting tensions within parties. And these will continue.

For example, there are tricky questions for Exeter Conservative PPC Hannah Foster: will she demur from her party's policy to revoke the decision? If not, she will look as though she is failing to stand up for Exeter. If she does, she will lose her reputation as a standard-bearer for David Cameron. I've not seen a comment from her yet. I suspect she will come up with a formulation along the lines of "It is right not to make such a big change in the current economic climate. Who knows what might be possible in a few years time?"

The LibDem Leader of Exeter City Council Adrian Fullam is delighted with the decision. Nick Harvey, LibDem MP for North Devon, condemned it.

In other reactions, Hugo Swire, Conservative MP for East Devon, puts a strongly robust view against the decision, and calls for a full inquiry into the process. The Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, puts the counter view. The Labour blogger Ust Oldfield is scathing about the response of the Conservative leader of Devon County Council. The leader of Teignbridge District Council says the whole process has been a waste of money.

Meanwhile, the Local Government Chronicle reports concerns of the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities & Local Government, Peter Housden. Housden wrote to the Secretary of State, pointing out that the decision departed from criteria previously published by ministers on how unitary bids would be assessed and that "I am concerned that the approach you are currently proposing makes it difficult for me to meet the standards expected of me as accounting officer”.