Durham and Northumberland unitary authorities start today

THE biggest shake-up of local government for 35 years comes into force today and bosses said it would be a success if nobody noticed.

THE biggest shake-up of local government for 35 years comes into force today and bosses said it would be a success if nobody noticed.

District councils have been abolished in Northumberland and Durham and replaced by unitary authorities in both counties.

Months of elaborate planning and painstaking work to create the all-purpose super councils has had the primary focus of ensuring a smooth and seamless transition to a new system of local government.

For the senior town hall officials who have been labouring for two years to ensure that official V Day – Vesting Day – arrives with minimal problems, it will be regarded as a success if people across the county fail to notice any difference in the way their services are delivered.

April 1 is the most significant day for local government in the North East since the same date in 1974, when the last major shake-up of town halls arrived.

It involves the abolition of the existing two-tier structure of a county and district councils and their replacement with a new unitary authority responsible for all public services.

Northumberland County Council – together with the district and borough authorities in Berwick, Alnwick, Castle Morpeth, Tynedale, Wansbeck and Blyth Valley – have been consigned to the history books, along with their respective roles and duties.

In Durham, the county council has gone along with Durham City, Sedgefield, Easington, Wear Valley, Derwentside, Teesdale and Chester-le-Street.

From now on, every public service from street cleaning to education will be the ultimate responsibility of the new unitary authorities.

Council bosses have pledged that residents will not see any deterioration in the front line services they receive, for example, there will be no changes to the days on which they currently get their rubbish bins emptied.

In Northumberland, a new Homefinder service will be launched in the summer, aimed at linking people looking for a council property with available accommodation, wherever it is in the county.

And a new system of dealing with planning will see people in every part of Northumberland given the chance to speak in public on applications which affect them, either at four area planning committees or a central committee which will deal with major issues such as opencast mines and wind farms.

Local people will be able to raise problems and queries, pay bills and get information about council services at a county-wide network of One Stop Shops and customer service points.

But people are still waiting to find out whether the promised benefits of a single super council for such a large and scattered county will come to fruition.

These include promised efficiency savings of £17m a year from merging seven councils into one, local people having more say in what matters to them and their community and a stronger voice both regionally and nationally for Northumberland.

The greater efficiencies have already largely been lost in the drive to make £25m in budget savings for the new authority in 2009/10, together with shedding around 800 council posts and putting council tax up by an average 2.8%.

And there is still some confusion about exactly how the ‘localisation’ agenda will work, and what role parish and town councils will play.

Council leader Jeff Reid said today marks a new beginning for local government in Northumberland. “We believe that a new single council for Northumberland will lead to better services, greater efficiency and easier access to local services.

“Our immediate aim is to ensure that services are running smoothly and residents notice no difference when we move from March into April. In the long term, the new council must deliver some real improvements to the lives of people in Northumberland.”

In Durham, county council leader Simon Henig will today use the inaugural annual meeting of the new authority today to place on record his thanks for all the work that outgoing district and borough members have done .

Meanwhile Peter Reynolds, who joined one of the now extinct authorities – Derwentside District Council – straight from school in 1974, the year it was formed, said farewell to colleagues yesterday.

Father-of-three Mr Reynolds, married to Lesley, finds himself prematurely retired from his post as the council’s director of environmental services at the age of 53.

He was told there was no place for him on the new unitary authority which swallows up Derwentside and the other six districts in County Durham.

Mr Reynolds: “I am looking at starting my own planning consultancy, I have been told there is work available and I will have to see how it goes.

“But this is a sad day for me and for an awful lot of my colleagues.”

The supporter: 'There is now an opportunity for services to be improved'

FORMER Northumberland County Council leader Peter Hillman says he remains ‘absolutely confident’ a single unitary authority was right for the county.

Mr Hillman was part of the then ruling Labour administration at County Hall which drew up the successful bid for a single super council and was leader when the Government approved it in July 2007.

He is one of a number of senior Labour councillors who lost their seats or failed to be selected by the party at last year’s council elections – a move widely seen as payback for their support for the unitary option.

But he remains convinced it was the right decision and says he has no regrets about the council’s leadership at the time, apart from the fact they are no longer around to see it through to fruition.

Mr Hillman admits he has been ‘gobsmacked’ by the scale of job losses involved in the new council’s first budget, and says he and his former colleagues would have fulfilled a pledge to reduce council tax bills so that everyone paid what is currently the lowest level, in Blyth Valley.

He said: "I still believe a single unitary council will bring major benefits to Northumberland. It will mean greater accountability in that there will be one council responsible for all public services, ending the confusion between the districts and county in terms of who does what.

"During my 19 years on the county council I heard an awful lot about how confusing it was for people, how they didn’t know where to go and that they found themselves bounced from pillar to post.

"I believe there is now an opportunity for services to be improved as a result of cutting duplication. I remain confident that our successful bid was a realistic one: if it had not stacked up the Government would not have approved it in the first place.

"The economic recession and budget situation could not have been foreseen at the time we made the bid, so I have certain sympathies with the new administration at County Hall.

"However, it is a bit disappointing that the blueprint we produced has been changed somewhat, such as the equalisation of council tax across the county.

"We made a commitment that everyone’s bills would come down to the lowest in the county, instead of equalising it upwards."

The opponent: 'Still a real risk that it will be too romote from people'

WITH a huge rural constituency to cover Berwick MP Alan Beith was always a fierce opponent of the concept of a single council for the county.

He initially argued the case for the creation of three separate unitary authorities, but threw his weight behind the campaign for two – split along urban and rural lines – when his original idea was ruled a non-starter.

Now, with April 1 here and his own Liberal Democrat party in charge of making the new super council work, Mr Beith says he still feels there are risks the county will suffer as a result of the new system.

He said: "I would have much preferred smaller unitaries and the people of Northumberland voted clearly for the two-council option in the referendum held in 2004.

"It was fundamentally wrong, and in defiance of all principles, for the Government to then go for a single unitary instead.

"The difficulties we anticipated in creating such a large authority are those we are now having to contend with.

"There is still a real risk that this new authority will be too remote from people on the ground, and there is always the anxiety that there are not the people on the spot that there were before.

"I still believe that two unitary councils, one for Blyth Valley and Wansbeck and the other for the four rural districts, would have been the better option. It would have made things like equalising car parking charges so much easier than in one big unitary.

"Some of the claims about £17m efficiency savings and lower council tax bills with a single unitary were nonsense at the time and the public didn’t believe them.

"However, there is no point in fighting old battles now and we have got to make the new structure work. I am determined that we will do that, even though it is not the system I would have chosen. I commend the Lib Dem group at County Hall for their work so far.

"We have to devolve responsibility to town councils, such as those in Berwick and Alnwick, and give them a bigger role, as well as using the area committee structure.

"In addition, this new council is entitled to as much extra support from the Government as possible, bearing in mind our historic funding difficulties and the fact that the Labour Government imposed this system on us."

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