County leaders condemn Exeter unitary move

LEADING MEMBERS OF Devon County Council have hit back strongly at yesterday s Government decision to grant Exeter to run all its own affairs as a unitary authority. They are angry that the rest of Devon will be left with the present two-tier system and l

LEADING members of Devon County Council have hit back strongly at yesterday's Government decision to grant Exeter to run all its own affairs as a unitary authority.

They are angry that the rest of Devon will be left with the present two-tier system and less cash to provide services. They also claim that council tax payers in Exeter will have to pay an extra �200 a year each.

County council leader John Hart said: "This decision is complete madness and we will fight it all the way.

"Rosie Winterton (Local Government Minister) has agreed with former Ministers and the Boundary Committee in admitting a unitary Exeter is unaffordable. But still she gives it the go ahead.

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"This would be laughable if it weren't so serious, coming on the very day that Devon County Council has set its lowest ever council tax rise.

"The Government's decision shows utter contempt for the wishes of local people.

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"We predicted last week this would cost every Exeter council taxpayer an extra �200 on their bills and Rosie Winterton confirms people in the city will pay more for less. But so will every resident across Devon.

"This is a last, desperate act of a dying Government, scrambling to shore up support in the city at the expense of the ordinary people of Devon and Exeter.

"It is a vanity project that has already been rejected by every expert with the Boundary Committee. This Government itself discounted it as a hugely costly and unworkable option before, bad for the city and the people of Devon. Rosie Winterton agrees with that analysis.

"But now, as Ministers scrabble for votes ahead of the General Election, they think this unnecessary and expensive decision to rip the heart out of Devon will galvanise their party workers in the city.

"They are clearly determined not to listen to reason, to ignore the weight of public and expert opinion and to treat local people with contempt.

"Most sensible people can see that wasting more time and money on reorganising local government in the current economic climate would be very foolish.

"But tearing Devon apart and splitting up vital services like social care and schools which the county council now provides effectively, efficiently and economically is simply madness.

"Ms Winterton says a unitary Exeter will be a far more potent force for delivering positive economic outcomes for the city. Tell that to the Devon and Cornwall Business Council who say it flies in the face of the efficient working of both businesses in Devon and the Devon economy.

"We all know that now is the time to cut costs and red tape not to create expensive new tiers of bureaucracy.

"Rather than getting distracted by this kind of needless disruption, we should be investing all our money, time and effort on helping the county recover from recession and improving people's lives.

"This is what I and my colleagues have been doing.

"We are investing in jobs through developments like the Exeter Science Park and planning modern, public transport systems to service the growing city as it expands.

"One of the smallest unitary authorities in the country will lack the economy of scale to match investments like this.

"Neither will it have the expertise to pilot through the multi-million pound reorganisation of education that Devon County Council successfully managed, resulting in five brand new secondary schools and eight new primaries and soaring examination results.

"Sadly, this Government is putting short term electoral advantage above the wellbeing of people in Devon and Exeter and that is despicable."

Shadow county council leader Brian Greenslade said: "Stark staring bonkers comes to mind. But cynical political manipulation is also an appropriate description.

"This could be Ben Bradshaw's parting gift to Exeter - a �200 a household increase in council tax to pay for his political fortunes.

"The Government have ignored their own guidance, ignored the previous decision by the Government not to give Exeter unitary status on financial grounds, ignored the advice of the independent Boundary Committee and taken a purely political decision.

"This decision will give the whole of Devon a more expensive and poorer local government system at time when change cannot be afforded."

Geoffrey Cox, MP for Torridge and West Devon, yesterday pledged that a future Conservative Government would reverse the Exeter unitary decision. "The Government's decision at a time of unprecedented debt crisis to spend tend of millions in ripping up the county of Devon despite the near unanimous opposition of every interested party is completely wrong-headed and runs entirely contrary to the overwhelming balance of public opinion on the issue," he said.

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