The effects of splitting Cheshire

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The news in this week's Nantwich Chronicle that the now well-established Nantwich Food & Drink Festival could be cancelled next year because Cheshire East may withdraw its funding, raises anew all the questions about what we are getting from the council reorganisation launched in April this year.

There are ever louder rumblings about the reorganisation that was foisted on Cheshire's residents. Despite an additional year before April to plan the split of Cheshire into two unitary authorities, there seems little benefit so far — except lots of new Cheshire East logos. And little money for anything else.

Council workers have had to endure many months of uncertainty about their jobs and many are still in the dark; large sums have been paid out in redundancy pay, and there's more to come; budgets have been delayed. We also hear there's a massive amount to be spent on new council HQs for both East and West councils when there was a fine County HQ in Chester. But that's being sold off!

Hazel BlearsFollowers of the Cheshire saga will recall that it was a decision of the then Communities Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, to ignore all the consultation on local government reorganisation. It was she who split the county into Cheshire East and Cheshire West & Chester against virtually all the advice she was given.

With Hazel Blears now seemingly as unpopular as it's possible for a politician to be, it may seem unfair to put the boot in when she's down — but the facts speak for themselves.

These are the words of the veteran and much respected MP for Crewe & Nantwich, the late Gwyneth Dunwoody in the House of Commons on 18th December 2007 (Hansard) debating the splitting of the county in two:

"The secretary of State (Hazel Blears) has taken the decision not on political grounds — certainly not on party political grounds — and not on economic grounds, because all that information was supplied to her and to Treasury Ministers in considerable detail from the beginning of the discussion in July. It was pointed out to her that the two new authorities would rapidly run out of reserves — indeed, that they would do so within the first year of their creation.

It was pointed out to her in great detail — the figures have been emphasised time and time again by independent audit — that the effect on the population of Cheshire, and particularly on my constituency, would be directly felt in the development of its schools, hospitals and general services, be they waste, roads or any of the other services that local government controls.

We should give full credit to the secretary of state. She alone appears to have taken the decision. Treasury ministers know very well that the facts and figures with which they were presented were absolutely watertight and that discussions have been held both at county level and at local government level in Chester and elsewhere with a number of auditors who have made it plain that they have accepted the case for one unitary county because those figures are viable and the alternative is not. It is known that the taxpayers in my area will not only have to pay many thousands of pounds, but will face the loss of many of the advantages that they have at present.

I have been in the House long enough to see the coming and going of many inadequate personalities. I have seen those on both sides of the House who have been promoted for various reasons. I have seen the crawlers. I have seen those who have used sex — there are so many it would take too long to name them. I have seen those whose sexual preferences were of interest to others. I have seen those who demonstrated a great commitment to their own interests, irrespective of the political parties that they were supposed to represent.

But I have rarely seen a decision such as this, taken with such cynicism and with so little respect for the interests of the average voter. When the secretary of state was seeking office as the deputy leader of the Labour party, she said that people frequently become disaffected with their own Government because they feel that no one is listening to them. Wherever could they have got that idea from? She also made it clear — she told us constantly — that she would listen.

If I may say so, the decision has been taken with a degree of cynicism that I have not seen for some time. I do not believe that it is in the interests of the Labour party, but then it has never been pretended that the decision is in the interests of the Labour party or of individual voters. It is not in the interests of those who work in the health service, the education service, or social services, or of those who want decent, high-quality local government services. I believe that it is a decision that has been taken for the most venal and personal reasons, and I find it wholly and deeply objectionable."

Predictions coming trueUnfortunately — for the residents of Cheshire; the organisers of events such as the Nantwich Food & Drink Festival; local people trying to obtain funds for improvements in their communities; the plans for the much heralded Weaver Valley project, still not adopted by Cheshire East; those that work for the council — Gwyneth Dunwoody's remarkable predictions seem all too accurate.

Perhaps Ms Blears could take time off from trying regain some support in her Salford constituency and explain just what her curious determination to reorganise Cheshire was really about, and what it has achieved.