There is a bit of a double act going on between Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) and Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) on Twitter at times with one promoting the other. One such bit of promotion came last week when Grant Shapps tweeted the following:
Eric Pickles standing up for England’s counties and 1,000 years of English history – http://bit.ly/aD1Z0Z
SIR – I share the public’s concern (Letters, August 9) at the recommendation of the Postcode Address File Advisory Board to delete counties from the Royal Mail’s address database by 2016. It speaks volumes that unelected officials regard our counties – and over 1,000 years of English history – as a “vanity attachment”.
But the new Government is taking steps to defend our counties. We have scrapped Labour’s gerrymandering which sought to break up the counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk for electoral advantage and we are dismantling the tiers of regional assemblies and development agencies.
It is a response to the recent news that the Royal Mail will no longer include counties in official addresses – and as you can see Eric Pickles uses it as an opportunity to pledge to protect English counties.
I have to say I greeted that with a good deal of amusement, the reason being that I live in what was once the county of Berkshire one of the oldest in the country, which exists now purely as a ceremonial county, and it’s not been Labour gerrymandering for electoral advantage that has reduced the county to a mark on the map, it was the Tory Local Government Act 1972 that transferred a chunk of the county including the former county town of Abingdon to Oxfordshire in 1974, and then the previous Tory administration gerrymandering for electoral advantage that abolished the whole county in 1998 – John Gummer chose to ignore the recommendations of the commission leaving Berkshire with six unitary authorities.
So what is the effect? For us in our little village at a simple level it means significantly less representation. We have a single local councillor, who we can only vote for once every four years, for the other three years our opinion counts for absolutely nothing. Under the old two tier system we had representation at both local and county level, and many more opportunities to vote.
Looking wider, we now have six authorities fighting with each other. We saw it with the endless debates over housing allocation where Wokingham District fought and lost the battle with the other authorities – each authority purely focused on their own people. Even government documents such as this concede that the six small unitary authorities don’t work in the best interests of the people, check out this paragraph on page 5:
The unitary structure of local government across Berkshire makes it difficult for other stakeholders to engage on issues that cut across boundaries. This is further complicated by the range of political views and agendas within and across the local authorities, and by the fact that changes across other public sector bodies do not align with the Local Authorities or each other (e.g. Police, Primary Care Trusts and Learning and Skills Council)
The size of the authorities causes problems too, I remember a number of discussions with local teachers of the problems, for example the peculiarities caused by Wokingham outsourcing much of their education to next door Surrey, or the fact that school repair projects that were approved by Berkshire were dropped by Wokingham who had more limited funds. We still have the effects now more than a decade later with many students being educated in schools in adjacent authorities rather than their own, purely because villages in the west of Wokingham are closer to schools in West Berkshire, students in parts of Reading are closer to schools in Wokingham.
That also highlights a missed opportunity – Reading still doesn’t have one authority overseeing a strategy for the whole town. A large chunk towards the south east of Greater Reading is in Wokingham, indeed most of the University of Reading is in Wokingham. Over in the west another chunk of the town is looked after by West Berkshire. In both cases there is no clear divide between the areas, but the historic borders were retained.
So will the Tories stand up for England’s counties? I don’t know, but as a resident of the former county of Berkshire their past record doesn’t bode well for the future.