Tuesday 21 November 2006

Oh why can't they leave us alone?

All writers specialise in displacement activity. It doesn’t matter whether the day’s task is a novel, a shopping list or a column for The Journal. We’d rather be sharpening pencils, making a nice cup of tea or sorting our books into alphabetical order. Anything rather than actually putting pen to paper or, nowadays, fingers to keyboard.

In business, the displacement activity of choice is meetings. Long, tedious opportunities for the self-important to expose their vacuity, and for the work-shy to hibernate.

For the public sector, though, meetings just aren’t enough. Why get on with the job when you could be reorganising? I’ve lost count of the number of reorganisations the NHS has endured over the last ten years, but I think they can be summarised as follows: Mr Blair wasted the first half of his time in office dismantling the market reforms introduced by those wicked Tories, and the second half putting them back. At the same time, undisputed and unprecedented extra billions have been poured into the service, to precisely what effect? The headlines are still full of hospital and ward closures, cash crises, redundancies, inadequate hygiene and new drugs denied by cash constraints.

Our police authorities wasted over £11 million planning their aborted reorganisation into super-forces designed to make them fit the EU model of regional government. I do hope they haven’t just chucked those plans in the bin because two things the drivers of the EU agenda are not short of is stamina and patience, and I’m sure they will be back.

Which brings us to regional and local government. Like many other naïve fools, I voted ‘no’ in the referendum two years ago, thinking that I was voting against the EU-decreed Regional Assembly when I was actually only being asked whether I wanted it to be elected.

Not the least of the reasons I voted ‘no’ was that the elected assembly came packaged with another totally unnecessary local government reorganisation, which would have removed all decision-making from my council in Alnwick to Morpeth or even Hexham.

And what happens now? The sixth form public schoolboy masquerading as Ruth Kelly invites councils, if they wish – let it be said loud and clear that this was not, for once, a central diktat – to apply for unitary status. Within hours, Northumberland County Council leaps in with a self-aggrandising claim for greater power. And then, shamefully, our district councils, instead of sticking up two fingers and chanting that old mantra ‘it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, cave in and start backing counter-proposals for two unitary authorities, one a rural behemoth stretching all the way from Blanchland to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I’m sorry, but I fail to see how making local government more remote in this way can possibly make it better. They say two tiers are confusing and expensive. Really? My bins are emptied by the district council, the roads are mended by the county. How thick do you have to be not to be able to grasp that?

As for saving money – yes, I expect some people will lose their jobs if this reorganisation goes ahead, and much needless anguish will be caused. But I’m equally sure they will all be replaced by new recruits on higher salaries, to reflect the bigger organisation for which they are now responsible.

In the meantime, numerous parasitic consultants will cream off millions designing palatial new head offices, identities, logos and all the other prerequisites of a large local authority.

Where is the demand for this? Where are the locals demonstrating for change? And what are the chances that, if either unitary option is adopted, our local government will be one penny cheaper, our school standards higher or our roads any less potholed? Exactly. Surely it can’t be too late for us taxpayers to deliver a short and simple message to our councillors: just say no. And get on with the jobs we voted you into.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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