Feb
06

Does Unitary Consultation mean you take just one side?

posted on February 6th 2008 in Democracy with 0 Comments

"Once again, the citizens have disappeared."

Michael Ancram, MP, Devizes.

Yesterday the House of Commons held the first debate about the Local
Government changes – the approval of unitary status for a number of
councils around the country.  The first debate was about Wiltshire, our
home county.

From reading the debate it would seem that the Government has based its decision to form a unitary Wiltshire County Council based on the ease of working of a variety of bodies and organisations and ignored strong evidence that the citizens of Wiltshire opposed the change. I’ve highlighted some of the salient parts from the TheyWorkForYou rendition of Hansard.

"The citizens did not disappear. …  There were probably more people in favour of maintaining district
councils and not moving to a unitary council than there were in favour
of a unitary council. Nevertheless, about a third of the public who
offered a view could see the merit of a unitary Wiltshire and would
like that to happen."

John Healey, Minister of State (Local Government)

So the citizens didn’t disappear but the government choose to ignore them in favour of the views of other stakeholders as described by the County Council who had proprosed unitary status.

"[ask] whether the Government took any steps to authenticate [the evidence produced by the councils submitting a proposal]?"

Simon Hughes, MP, North Suffolk and Bermondsey

"we, as a Government Department, did not undertake any direct opinion polling or checking of residents’ views on the proposal."

John Healey, Minister of State (Local Government)

But the government didn’t check what they said was true. 

"the district auditor stated in response:

"I agree with you that it"—

a press release issued by the county council—

"represents a misinterpretation of the MORI findings. "

Andrew Murrison, MP, Westbury

Even though the District Auditor felt that the county had been mis-representing findings.

I don’t want to get into the debate about whether Wiltshire should abandon the two-tier system or not,

78 per cent. of people said that they wanted the status quo, but with a
bit more co-operation; 71 per cent. felt that a single council for
Wiltshire would be remote and less in touch with local people and local
issues; 64 per cent. saw Wiltshire as too big to be served by only one
authority; and two thirds of the respondents said that the current
system of local government worked well for them.

Michael Ancram, MP, Devizes

although I think I was one of the 71% above, but the lack of rigour in the consultation process is unbelievable.

The decision was made on the basis of evidence provided by the County Council, the organisation that stood to gain the most from unitary status.  The evidence was not checked.  The research that showed that citizens of Wiltshire were against unitary status were put to one side in favour of the views of

"Several important agencies and bodies, with which the council needs to
work increasingly closely in developing and providing better services,
were strongly in favour of a county council because they perceived the
ability to work closely with the local authority as being more likely
in those circumstances."

John Healey, Minister of State (Local Government)

In short the people of Wiltshire are being told that a variety of unaccountable and unelected organisations carry more weight than the population of Wiltshire when it comes to deciding the way their local government is to be structured.

This IS not the way to engage people with local democracy.

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