Districts handed notice to quit

DISTRICT councils in Northumberland and County Durham face being axed in favour of single county-wide authorities under a radical town hall shake-up.

DISTRICT councils in Northumberland and County Durham face being axed in favour of single county-wide authorities under a radical town hall shake-up.

The Government yesterday announced it wanted the current two-tier system in Northumberland and County Durham scrapped to pave the way for a unitary council in each area within two years to improve services and cut council tax bills.

Northumberland district chiefs wanted two authorities, on rural and urban lines, while the county council proposed an overarching body. In County Durham, district chiefs opposed the single council put forward by county bosses.

The news was welcomed by North-East business chiefs, county council bosses and MPs who backed the overhaul.

But districts and other MPs reacted with fury – and legal action is yet possible.

Residents in Northumberland and County Durham are now being promised council tax cuts, improved services and greater local decision-making – paid for by cutting bureaucracy and efficiency savings.

Around 280 jobs could go from a combined 36,000 workforce, which could hit senior management hardest.

The number of councillors will be slashed from more than 300 in Northumberland to less than 70 and from 375 to around 120 in County Durham.

North-East Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Ramsbotham said ministers had handed the counties a “major weapon” to maximise their job-creating potential.

But he warned ministers had to ensure the overhaul was not seen as a county council take-over and that good district work should not be lost.

Northumberland County Council leader Peter Hillman said: “We know that the proposals will save £17m every year which can be invested back into frontline services. It will stop money being wasted on bureaucracy and duplication, and give local people more say.

“Our bid offered greater value for money but more importantly, it has the potential to improve lives for people in communities all over Northumberland, both in urban and rural areas.”

He added everyone agreed radical change was needed – something Hexham MP Peter Atkinson agreed with, although he said a two-council option would have been more innovative.

But the Tory MP added: “At least finally a decision has been made. So we know where our future is and we can get on with the job of reorganising local government in Northumberland.”

Durham County Council leader Albert Nugent said the decision had been a long time coming and it was now time for districts and counties to work together to improve people’s lives, recognising it had strained relations.

North Durham MP Kevan Jones said: “A unitary council will deliver strong leadership, and give the county a strong voice in the region. It will also bring real financial savings which can be re-invested to improve services.”

New councils were announced in a raft of areas across the country. But single councils for Cumbria and North Yorkshire were rejected.

Communities minister John Healey said the proposals would save more than £150m annually.

The current system will continue until April 2009, when new councils are established.

But “shadow” authorities are due to be established next May to oversee the set-up of new unitary councils, agreeing budgets and council tax precept for the first year.

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The winning bids

An at-a-glance guide to how the counties put their plans to the government

Northumberland

COUNCIL tax will be equalised so everyone pays the current lowest level. For example, at present council tax varies by £64 between the highest Band D tax (Castle Morpeth) and the lowest (Blyth Valley). The change which will mean residents in five out of six districts paying less.

Sweeping away bureaucracy to save £17m a year that will be ploughed into improving services.

The £18m transition bill, including £3m for council tax equalisation and £12m for redundancies, will be met using general reserves.

For most of the county’s 14,000 council workers it should be business as normal, with savings coming from cutting duplication and senior management with estimated job losses less than 100 posts.

Pledge that all residents will get the same high standards of services, with easy access through a single local point.

Confusion about who does what should end with one authority responsible for all council services. Disruption is hoped to be minimal with more than 75% of services already delivered countywide.

Residents will be able to get involved through 25 “community forums” for decision-making at a local level. Councillors will work with residents and other bodies delivering services, and be handed local budgets and powers to get things done fast.

Scrutiny committees will also have better powers to hold the council and other public bodies to account. A single authority will fight to ensure Northumberland has one strong, influential voice regionally and nationally.

There will be a four-year term for the council leader and their cabinet to provide stability and a long-term focus, although the total number of councillors will fall from more than 300 to less than 70.

County Durham

Cutting duplication could save £21m a year, allowing £15m a year to go on services and equalizing council tax so everyone pays the current lowest level. Excluding parish precepts, the
typical Band D household in Derwentside currently pays £247 per year whereas someone in a
Band D property in Chester-le-Street pays £168 per year.

Joined-up council services based on residents’ needs.

Integrated health, housing and social services teams and local “area care” to keep streets clean are examples of planned benefits.

Easier access to improved services, ranging from rubbish collection and disposal to a single customer telephone number

One-off £12.4m transition costs will be met from initial savings and financial reserves held by existing councils.

Some 180 job losses are expected with senior managers facing an uncertain time, with some needing to re-apply for jobs. Most of the 22,000 workforce, from teachers to refuse collectors, will transfer to the unitary council.

Most buildings like schools and libraries will be unaffected, although surplus properties will be sold, put to other uses or trigger local regeneration schemes.

Council homes will be transferred, although arrangements under arms-length management bodies would remain the same unless changes were agreed with tenants.

Local decision-making will be based around 12 to 14 “natural communities” in the county’s main settlements and rural areas – with precise geography to be worked out with local consultation. Each area will backed up by an “area action partnership” supported by a council area coordination team. Development of town and parish councils will be supported, alongside voluntary and community groups.

The current total of 375 councillors will be cut to 126 – with two each representing 63 wards – with a 10-strong cabinet leading the council.

A further review will establish more local wards represented by a single councillor, with the total number remaining at around 120.

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Doomed authorities may not go quietly

THE planned town hall overhaul could yet be stalled by legal challenges from angry district council chiefs, it emerged last night.

Blyth Valley council leader Dave Stephens said seeking a judicial review of the Government’s actions was something that needed to be looked at, while Durham City Council leader Fraser Reynolds said it was an option.

Northumberland district chiefs had called for a two-council option, based on rural and urban lines, while their County Durham counterparts had opposed a single unitary authority in their area.

District council chiefs in Shropshire have already lodged a judicial review at the High Court in London, with a decision not expected until September.

Mr Stephens said: “I am amazed they could have come up with such an option because it is not going to do a thing for Northumberland. It is going to be remote.”

Berwick Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith claimed the decision flew in the face of the vast majority of local opinion and ignored voters views as set out in a referendum for an elected assembly, in 2004.

He maintained the needs of different areas which would have been best addressed by two councils.

He also said recently appointed ministers did not understand Northumberland’s situation.

Alnwick District Council leader Roger Styring said the decision was “a kick in the teeth” for democracy and had “not thrown in the towel” yet.

Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell said the news was “absolutely terrible”, adding Northumberland’s four MPs had backed the two-council option.

Durham city leader Fraser Reynolds said his authority would be looking at all options, including judicial review.

He added he was appalled the Government had “ignored” a referendum in which 72% of residents backed the current two-tier system.

Richard Betton, chairman of the Durham district councils forum and leader of Teesdale council, said they had fought hard to stop the “rushed” move towards the unitary council for the county.

“This change will be costly and disruptive and have a damaging impact on services provided locally to half a million people,” he added.

Communities minister John Healey appeared to shrug off the threat of the Shropshire judicial review.

He said there was nothing to stop the process from moving forward, with legislation expected to be passed in October or November.

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New minister makes vital call

PLANS for two new unitary councils in Northumberland did not meet Government criteria, district chiefs have been told. New Communities Secretary Hazel Blears judged there was not a “reasonable” likelihood that the proposal for the councils on urban and rural lines would meet the outcomes wanted by the Government.

In a letter to district bosses, Ms Blears warned there was a real risk the authorities would be unable to punch their weight, losing out to Newcastle and Gateshead. The plans were judged to be affordable and remove confusion about who did what, while proposals to increase local involvement would achieve the Government’s goals.

And though she also acknowledged broad support, the Communities Secretary claimed there was a lack of backing from key public sector bodies.

Ms Blears said “appears to be at least a reasonable level” of support for the single council option, with the North East Chamber of Commerce and Northumbria chief constable strongly supportive.

She recognised the districts relied heavily on the 2004 referendum which produced a majority against the single unitary council, but stressed that the single council option still had “significant” support at over 40%.

Durham County Council’s proposal for a single unitary authority also won support from Ms Blears who judged the scheme met the Government’s criteria.

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Unions worried by jobs threat

UNION chiefs are seeking reassurances there will be no compulsory redundancies or service cuts because of the town hall shake-up.

The move by the public services union Unison comes amid warnings that around 280 jobs could go in Northumberland and County Durham.

Lynne Robson, the unions’s regional head of local government, said: “We will also be making sure that the transfer process will be fair and equitable for all staff whether they are from the existing districts or the existing county councils. We have always stated that whatever form the new authorities take they should offer high quality, in-house public services provided by staff on the best possible pay and conditions.”

But a Northumberland County Council spokesman said: “This does not mean that there will be lots of job losses – that is not part of the proposals. For the vast majority of staff this will mean very little in the way of change. The savings will come from reducing duplication and senior management and estimates are that job losses would be less than 100 posts.”

Durham County Council chief executive Mark Lloyd said discussions were under way with unions and added: “Claims about major compulsory redundancies, job losses and office closures are simply not true. The cost savings we have identified are based on 180 job losses out of a total workforce of over 22,000.”

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