LEGAL challenges to government plans to scrap district and borough councils in Northumberland and Durham were dealt a major blow yesterday by a High Court judge who ruled against a similar court action in the Midlands.
Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council in Shropshire lost its judicial review against plans to scrap five district or borough councils to make way for a single authority.
The ruling could finally spell the death knell for borough and district councils in the North-East, which were urged last night to abandon their efforts to seek their own judicial review, since Shrewsbury and Atcham, along with Congleton Borough Council who jointly led the challenge, now face court costs of more than £400,000.
The judge, Mr Justice Underhill, did grant them permission to challenge his ruling in the Court of Appeal.
Supporters of single unitary authorities in Northumberland and Durham last night called upon the districts in the region to accept defeat. The seven County Durham and four Northumberland district councils – Alnwick, Berwick, Castle Morpeth and Blyth Valley – had been planning their own legal fight for survival.
Dave Stephens, leader of Blyth Valley District Council, said the judge’s ruling was “very disappointing”. He added: “It is not what I expected and it is also very disappointing that a Labour government has ignored the wishes of the majority of the people, who want a two-tier authority. But we will now have to get our heads together and look at the implications to our own legal challenge.”
And Coun Richard Betton, chairperson of the Durham Districts Councils’ Forum said: “We must now carefully consider the effect this ruling would have on any future legal proceedings based on similar grounds, such as the proceedings lodged by the Durham districts.”
Coun Fraser Reynolds, leader of Durham City Council, one of the seven districts in the county seeking a judicial review, said: “The council has been made aware of the result of the Shrewsbury and Atcham judicial review. We are disappointed that the ruling has gone against the challenge. The council is analysing the judgment carefully and will meet with legal advisers before making any decisions.
“We will be discussing our legal advice with the other districts with the view of taking recommendations about our future course of action to a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, October 23.”
Durham County Council’s Deputy Leader, Clive Robson, said: “This is a landmark ruling which has implications for the other legal challenges being considered in other parts of the country.
“I realise that my district council colleagues will be disappointed with the decision, but given the similarity between this case and the one they have proposed – coupled with the fact that it has landed local council taxpayers in Shropshire and Cheshire with a legal bill of over £400,000 – I hope that they take the time to reflect and weigh up whether it’s really worth pursuing their own legal challenge rather than working with us.”
And Coun Peter Hillman, Leader of Northumberland County Council, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for all of us in local government to create a brand new council for Northumberland that will deliver the best possible services to the people of the county, channel money back into vital services and be closer to communities.
“I am glad that some of the uncertainty about the way ahead is starting to resolve itself. We are already working closely with the district councils and all other stakeholders to work towards a smooth transition to a new authority and discuss how this will be managed.”
Local Government Minister John Healey said: “We welcome this clear decision, which removes any doubt about the ability of the Secretary of State to proceed as she has done.”
He said new super councils would save £150m annually and improve local services.