25 JUNE 1994, Page 24


`Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour's landmark'


County Britain was once Tory Britain. The Saxon shrievalties and Tudor lieu- tenancies, the great county councils of the 1888 Act, were the outer baileys of Conser- vative rule. Men and women of property fortified them. County government was for those too busy or too leisured to consider Parliament. The county was the Duke's interest, while young Plantagenet could meddle in public affairs. Towns and dis- tricts were for artisans and tradesmen. Today the rape and pillage of local govern- ment by Lady Thatcher and her Chancel- lors has left only Buckinghamshire to the Tory interest. In an orgy of revenge, John Major and his Chancellors have responded by tearing up charters, stabbing maps with their daggers and goading their minions to the hanging, redrawing and quartering of the counties.

The progress round the country of the local boundary commissioner, Sir John Banham, is growing ever more like that of Judge Jeffreys. At first he was lenient. He merely decapitated Peter Walker's cre- ations of Avon, Cleveland and Humber- side, and revived Rutland and the Isle of Wight. He even murmured that enough was enough. Perhaps a modest parish reform might round off the assize. But Downing Street's blood was up. John Major wanted upheaval. Michael Hesel- tine, then at environment, wanted it too. His successor, Michael Howard, was no friend of the counties. In Wales and Scot- land the Celts had already yielded to the sword. Let England take its punishment.

The first cuts came in the Labour north, in Durham, Derbyshire and North York- shire. Banham then moved south. Cam- bridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Royal Berkshire, Somerset and Gloucester- shire fell under his sway. Tory Central Office intervened. It demanded that local parties offer up new district boundaries that might produce assured Tory majori- ties. Frantic polls were commissioned to `prove' that unitary authorities were what the public wanted.

Banham used sweet reason. What had the Somerset of Bath in common with that of Exmoor? What had the Bucking- hamshire of the limpid Thames to do with the savannahs of Milton Keynes? Lan- cashire was surely no more than a collec- tion of cotton towns, Cheshire of Mancuni- an suburbs. But Banham was now up to his neck in politics. Senior Tories broke ranks. Lord Whitelaw came to the defence of Cumbria, David Heathcoat-Amory of Som- erset, Douglas Hurd of Oxfordshire. John Major was walking where even the Mar- quess of Salisbury had feared to tread. And this was supposed to be pain-free reform.

Changing local boundaries is revolution- ary folie de grandeur. The French or Italians would not dream of tearing up their local boundary maps. The yearning to do so in Britain may have been rooted in political revenge. It has been exploited by White- hall's restless search for an administrative map that is equilateral, standardised and easily controllable. It has sought to change police boundaries, court boundaries, health boundaries, education boundaries, railway boundaries. Whitehall pushes boundaries back and forth across maps like a baby in a high-chair, ever more frantic until they all fall to the floor and it bursts into tears.

The counties of England have more than longevity. Formed to resist the Viking inva- sions, they have reflected geography, anthropology and economics through into the 20th century in ways that baffle those long resident in London SW1. From the Victorian histories to the Shell and Pevsner guides, counties denote England. They are, as Burke said, 'our inns and resting places, divisions of our country as have been formed by habit and not by the sudden jerk of authority'. The bonds are of settlement and dialect, of family, land ownership and business. I did not begin this article with second-homers facetiously. Like migrants throughout history, they too find in coun- ties a comforting new identity.

Banham and his Whitehall allies say that none of this has to do with the practice of government. Jeremy and Samantha can pin prints of Tudor Dorset on their loo walls for the rest of time. Warwickshire can play Hampshire and the Cheshires can keep the peace in Bosnia. But the titans of public administration must work to a different agenda, that of executive efficiency. Police authorities, I was told, must be few enough to fit round a Home Office conference table. Education authorities must be large enough (once John Patten has gone) for each to employ its own flute organiser.

Anybody who believes this should not be in politics. The only sensible system is a local electorate that reflects some sense of geographical identity. Outside big cities, which are naturally unitary, voters in my experience have a divided identity: between a historic county and what the French call a commune, a town or village of widely varie- gated size. They vote for the county in a spirit of mild deference, 'what is best for the area as a whole'. They vote for the locality out of passionate, even corrupt, self-interest. County planning should hold the ring between these self-interests. The county is the one unit of government that embraces town and country, that can chan- nel the shifting sands of demography out- side the cities. Other functions are for debate.

The structure is precisely the one that has been governing Britain for over a cen- tury, indeed for ten centuries. It is that of single-tier democracy in big towns and cities (the old county boroughs) and two- tier democracy elsewhere. It has worked. It needs no change. English counties such as Cornwall or Yorkshire are distinct histori- cal entities, as are Luxembourg or Brittany, Jutland or Bavaria. Nobody says they are `too big' or `too small'.

The present Government has stripped power from the counties to the point where Tories vote Liberal Democrat en masse in protest. This serves the Government right. But to tear up the county map in retaliation is ridiculous. It will be hugely expensive. Altered government is always more govern- ment. The next building boom will be in `unitary authority' offices. Sir John Banham has said that if his suggested changes are not popular ministers will not implement them. Where has he been these past five years?

We must pray for a U-turn against the unitarist heresy. And we must recite the curse on all who move their neighbours' landmarks. It did for Mr Walker. It could yet do for Mr Heseltine, and Mr Howard, and Mr Gummer and . . .