It is forty-five years since Elmhurst County Grammar School closed its doors for the last time. It was a sad moment for those of us who had experienced just one year of education of the school. Come September, we would all be at a nearby comprehensive. Not all of us, though, two friends from Class 1BR – the letters in the designation of the classes coming from the surname of the form teacher – would be heading to opposite ends of the country. Neil was going to Camelford in Cornwall, where his father had been transferred as manager of the branch of the National Westminster Bank, Mark was going to Scotland, to the town of Tillicoultry in Clackmannanshire.
In times when a journey to Cornwall was considered a long distance, Scotland seemed as remote as France or America. There was no prospect ever of travelling such a distance. In his neat cursive handwriting, Mark wrote his new address on a piece of paper and I promised I would write – of course, I never did.
I have no idea what happened to Mark, but, through the years, the concept of Clackmannanshire has continued to intrigue. The tiny Scottish counties disappeared the following year with local government reorganisation, perhaps the regions formed from aggregates of counties were more efficient and possessed a greater capacity to perform their statutory duties. Did the experience of local government by Mark, in distant Scotland, come to reflect that of Neil, in less distant Cornwall? What size does a jurisdiction need to be in order for it to function effectively and efficiently?
Somerset was broken up in the reforms that erased places like Clackmannanshire from the map. The northern parts of the county were taken and added to Bristol and south Gloucestershire to create the county of Avon. It was in turn broken up, leaving the areas of Somerset it had absorbed as the unitary authorities it has absorbed as North Somerset and Bath and North-East Somerset. Now, there is talk that Somerset itself will become a unitary authority – its district councils will be abolished and its 550,000 people will become subject to the jurisdiction of a single authority.
Clackmannanshire and a half a million people in a single area seem very different propositions, but the principle of jurisdiction applies, who governs? Who is responsible?
Paradoxically, the creation of a single Somerset council might encourage greater local engagement. The parish councils, the lowest tier of local government will remain, they are the bodies rooted in local communities, and with which people become involved; the district councils, with their areas that cover 100,000 people or more, are just as remote as a county of 500,000. Talking to a man engaged in the life of the parish council about the possibility of change and local communities assuming more responsibilities he stopped and pondered it. “I had never thought of that,” he said, with hesitation.
Perhaps the person best able to comment would not have been Mark in Clackmannanshire, but Neil in Cornwall, the half a million Cornish people became the jurisdiction of a single council in 2009 – and it seems a thriving place.