County's future in the balance

Ministers are set to decide within the next two months whether to press ahead with a radical reform of local government in Northumberland in the face of fierce inter-council conflict.

Ministers are set to decide within the next two months whether to press ahead with a radical reform of local government in Northumberland in the face of fierce inter-council conflict.

The Government is expected to announce in March its `preferred proposals' for which areas should switch from two-tiers of county and district councils to a new unitary system of all-purpose authorities.

It will become clear at that stage if Northumberland is one of around eight areas earmarked as suitable for change.

If Northumberland is shortlisted, the Government will then carry out further consultations with local stakeholders before making a final announcement in July about which proposals - if any - are to be implemented.

Yesterday one Independent county councillor said he felt the lack of consensus on the best way forward in Northumberland could persuade Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly to leave things as they are.

Alnwick's Gordon Castle spoke out after an extraordinary meeting of the county council agreed to submit a bid for a single unitary council - alongside a rival submission by the six districts for two unitary authorities.

The county council is not voicing a preference for either option following a last-minute compromise deal by the Labour leadership aimed at averting a potential rebellion by some Labour councillors at Monday's meeting.

Some of them are known to support the districts' bid for the creation of two unitaries, one covering urban Blyth Valley and Wansbeck and the other rural Berwick, Alnwick, Castle Morpeth and Tynedale.

Yesterday county council leader Bill Brooks - who supports the single unitary option - said he was pleased that both rival bids would now go forward and looked forward to receiving the Government's decision in due course.

"I am confident that our proposals provide the best opportunities for our communities," he said.

Coun Castle, a county and Alnwick district councillor, said: "The Minister said she wanted an overall consensus on this issue and there is no way that can be achieved in Northumberland. There is enormous division in Northumberland and the Minister might feel things are best left alone."

A spokeswoman for the county council said the Government's White Paper required proposals for reform to have the support of a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders.

Meanwhile, Berwick North Liberal Democrat county councillor Diana Beith said the plan for two unitary councils would be more responsive to local needs and more democratically accountable.

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