Call for vote on future of county

Pressure is growing for a major test of public opinion on the future of Northumberland local government.

Pressure is growing for a major test of public opinion on the future of Northumberland local government.

Calls are being made for a referendum as debate rages over whether the county should be run by a new `super council' or two unitary authorities.

Leaders of the six district councils say they will urge the Government to arrange some form of referendum if Northumberland is shortlisted in March as one of the areas for change.

If that is not possible, they say they will consider organising their own test of public opinion.

District leaders are concerned that the Government's promise of `stakeholder consultations' on the way forward will focus on business and other organisations, and won't give sufficient weight to views of ordinary people.

They are convinced that a referendum in 2004 and a recent opinion poll in Northumberland show majority support for one unitary council for urban Blyth Valley and Wansbeck and another for rural Berwick, Alnwick, Tynedale and Castle Morpeth.

They hope public backing will convince Ministers to go for the two unitary option ahead of the single unitary favoured by the county council's Labour leadership.

Yesterday Blyth Valley Council leader Dave Stephens said: "We feel very strongly that the people of Northumberland should form the core of any consultations that take place with stakeholders. We would be happy to support a referendum and will ask the Government to consider that.

"Because this is such an important issue the districts could well come together to complement the Government's own consultations with our own test of public opinion. People out there have to be given a voice."

Castle Morpeth Council leader Peter Jackson said: "People's views should be paramount and I feel strongly that there should be a referendum to test public opinion. As district councils, we will try to coordinate something because the final decision will be made in Whitehall."

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said submissions for change were expected to have a broad cross-section of support, and testing public opinion was a matter for the local authorities, not the Government.

He said there may be more effective ways than a referendum to obtain an informed view from local people, such as citizens' panels and opinion polling.

A county council spokeswoman said: "In developing our proposals we have undertaken appropriate and extensive research, both commissioning Mori to carry out a survey and workshops and also using our in-house resources such as the People's Panel.

"Our consultation with both residents and partners helped us develop our plans."

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