Bid to scupper councils revamp

TOWN hall leaders in Northumberland will meet next week to discuss mounting a legal challenge to the abolition of district councils to pave the way for a single countywide authority.

TOWN hall leaders in Northumberland will meet next week to discuss mounting a legal challenge to the abolition of district councils to pave the way for a single countywide authority.

Blyth Valley Council leader Dave Stephens said yesterday fellow chiefs were seriously considering a legal bid.

The news comes after ministers backed proposals from Northumberland and Durham county councils for a single unitary authority in each area. Legal action is also being considered in County Durham.

The new structure could be running within two years, with residents promised better services, cost savings and council tax equalised so everyone pays the lowest current level. But job losses could total 280 in both counties, with senior managers hardest hit.

Coun Stephens said the situation was a “shambles” and he could seek a judicial review of the Government’s decision. “We are seriously investigating that option because I think the people of Northumberland deserve better,” he said.

Coun Stephens claimed a unitary authority had always been a “done deal” and hit out at the Government’s reasons for rejecting district plans for two Northumberland councils on urban and rural lines. He insisted they had support from business and regional organisations, something not recognised by the Government in a decision letter.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Tory Parliamentary candidate for Berwick, claimed Gordon Brown “couldn’t care less” that people in Northumberland had voted against a unitary council and called for a fair spread of resources across the country.

But Northumberland County Council leader Peter Hillman said all councils involved went through the same process, with criteria needing to be met set out clearly by the Government – with its decision letter saying it met them all.

He said: “We are now looking closely at how we will begin to bring together the many services that are delivered across the county of Northumberland. Our new way of working with communities and partners will be a vast improvement on the system we currently have.”

He added there needed to be close working with its partners, including districts, to ensure changes went smoothly and residents saw benefits as soon as possible. City of Durham Council leader Fraser Reynolds promised to fight on, adding he had asked the chief executive to seek legal advice on the grounds of this decision being pre-determined.

But City of Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods said the unitary authority was the best way forward for efficiency and quality services.

She called on Durham City Council to accept the outcome and claimed it had produced “one-sided” information for residents.

“A full and proper process has been gone through and I hope they do not waste more taxpayers’ money on legal challenges in the interests of saving their own positions,” said the Labour MP.

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said all decisions were taken on merit against five tough tests of whether proposals were affordable, provided stronger leadership, improved services, had broad support and empowered residents.

And in Northumberland, he said the successful proposals were put forward by the county council – not imposed by Whitehall. The decision letters made clear the county council’s proposal met the tests while the districts’ did not meet three.

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