Now it's time to divide and rule

The battle over the future of local government in Northumberland intensified yesterday as a new survey suggested a significant rise in public support for two unitary councils.

The battle over the future of local government in Northumberland intensified yesterday as a new survey suggested a significant rise in public support for two unitary councils.

Research commissioned by the six district councils shows that 67% of those questioned support the creation of two unitary authorities - compared to 28% in favour of a single `super council' covering the whole of the county.

The latest figure is 11% up on the 56% of Northumberland residents who voted for two unitaries in the 2004 ballot on an elected North-East Assembly and the linked question of local government reform.

Yesterday, district leaders said the new findings - from research carried out earlier this month - show that public support for splitting the county along urban and rural lines is growing.

The ICM telephone poll, which questioned more than 1,000 people across the whole of Northumberland, will be part of the districts' formal submission to the Government in support of the two unitary option. The results show that people think two unitaries would be best at understanding and addressing local issues, representing residents' views, providing services to meet local needs, giving value for money and making decisions in the best interests of local communities.

Only on the question of which would be best at influencing regional and national bodies did the single unitary option win parity with two councils, both options getting 46% support from those questioned.

The six districts have formed an alliance to argue for the creation of two all-purpose unitary authorities in the event of one tier of local government being scrapped. One would cover Blyth Valley and Wansbeck, with the other taking in the rural districts of Castle Morpeth, Tynedale, Alnwick and Berwick.

Yesterday, Castle Morpeth Council leader Peter Jackson said: "The poll results confirm what many people already know in Northumberland. Two very different areas exist in the county and residents want to see new local authorities that will focus on both the rural and urban agendas."

Officers at Northumberland County Council have been working on a submission for a single unitary council since the publication of the Government White Paper in October. It will be debated by the full council on January 15.

Last night, a county council spokeswoman said the survey question appeared to be `misleading', as it inferred the county council was merely seeking to extend its services in the event of local government reform.

"Our leader has actually said he advocates abolishing both county and district councils and establishing a brand new, single council to better serve all residents of Northumberland.

"Initial results from a recent county-wide survey carried out by MORI showed that 87pc of respondents said they would like to have more information on any proposals before making their mind up."

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Fighting to stay single

Details emerged last night of the proposals which will be sent to Government for a single council covering the whole of County Durham.

Durham County Council is asking key figures in the region to back its plans for scrapping two-tier arrangements in the wake of the White Paper on local government.

A briefing document says that accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates a £21m annual saving if a single tier structure is introduced.

The plans involve radical new structures, including a directly elected cabinet, and a system of 135 local councillors, each with their own ward.

However, they will be opposed by district councils in the county, with six of the seven due to publish their own proposals for keeping and improving the two-tier structure.

Bids to re-structure councils have to be sent to Government by January 25. A final decision on which are successful is due in June.

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