NORTHUMBERLAND’S switch to a unitary authority was yesterday plunged into crisis as the Government read the “riot act” to district councillors.
Local Government Minister John Healey sparked a major row after he claimed some district council chiefs were hampering the creation of the new authority by failing to co-operate fully – less than 60 days before it is due to begin work.
In a letter sent to district leaders, he suggested they were responsible for a £10m funding gap facing the unitary authority because of excessive spending in recent years. And in an interview with The Journal, Mr Healey highlighted “difficulties” with Berwick, Wansbeck and Blyth Valley district councils who angrily hit back at the minister’s “offensive” claims. He will now travel to Northumberland next week to tell council leaders there will be no turning back with the new authority going ahead on April 1.
It is an unprecedented step, Mr Healey said: “There are indications that some in local government in Northumberland have not yet fully focussed on the future and appear to be impeding the creation of the new unitary council.”
He also claimed the new countywide council was facing a £10m funding gap between spending and resources inherited from the district councils.
Mr Healey, who expects the council to be able to manage the situation, said: “It is hard to understand how a shortfall to this extent – 20% of the district budgets – could have arisen if, over recent years, every district council had adopted prudent and responsible budgets.”
He insisted council chiefs must now work together, including on providing information on contracts as well as reassuring staff and the public at this “difficult” transition time. But Mr Healey’s intervention was rejected by district council chiefs, with Wansbeck’s chief executive Bob Stephenson firing back an immediate response to him.
Mr Stephenson said Mr Healey should “look closer to home” over the problems as the minister who approved the unitary move, which he claimed was financially flawed and opposed by most residents.
In an email seen by The Journal, he said: “I therefore find it rather galling that you choose this time to attempt to deflect the blame for this decision now that it appears that the cat appears to be getting out of the bag in relation to the details of the flawed bid.”
Mr Stephenson hit back at suggestions that district councils were responsible for the county’s financial problems, saying Wansbeck had set balanced and prudent budgets for the past decade, with £3.6m of reserves when the move to unitary status was first announced.
He said: “On the 1st of April this year we expect to hand over balances of £4.4m to the new council. This is an increase of 22% in only 20 months following your decision.”
The council chief urged Mr Healey to launch an independent inquiry into the management of former county council resources, where the “answer” might lie.
He said Wansbeck had co-operated fully over the move to unitary status, with senior officials seconded to work on the switch. Mr Stephenson accepted Mr Healey’s letter included the words that “some in local government” appeared to be impeding the new council, but suggested it would have been better for Mr Healey to send his letter to the authorities in question.
COUNCIL tax will be “equalised” for all districts and set at £1,335.33 with an overall rise of 3.8%.
This will result in increases, by district, as follows:
Blyth Valley +4.85%
Castle Morpeth +2.87%
So what do Northumberland people think about change?
THE Journal took to the streets of Alnwick and Berwick yesterday to find out how people think the transition to a new single council for Northumberland has gone so far.
To see a special video vox pop from Berwick, go to www.journallive.co.uk
Bob Holloway, of Thropton, said: "I think everybody knows it is going to happen, I just think most people find it a bit confusing how it is all going to merge.
"How is the planning office going to work with other planning?
"There is so many questions. It is just confusing at the moment.
"Most people think it is just to save money which obviously it probably is. Whether it is going to be more efficient or not is another story." Alan Snaith, of Stott Street, Alnwick, said: "I’ve just been speaking to a councillor up there, from what I can gather they are doing away with them and it is just going to be an area thing.
"We have got plenty problems in the town all together with parking and such like, a lot of people just park cars anywhere now when they come into town."
Neville Forster, of Alnmouth Road, Alnwick, said: "I think it is a disaster, when they originally proposed it they said it was going to save £17m or something and now they are going to have a shortfall even though they are going to increase 5% which is the limit they are allowed they are still going to be short of money.
"For the district, certainly for this district, I can see no merit in it whatsoever."
Don't be surprised at difficulty
SIR Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick, said: "The Minister who forced a single authority on to Northumberland against the wishes of the voters should not be surprised that it is proving very difficult.
"But Liberal Democrats recognise that we have to make the new authority work as well as we can to deliver vital services to the people of Northumberland.
"And councillors of all persuasions need to recognise that.
"I think Mr Healey’s letter is aimed mainly at Labour councillors in south east Northumberland, but Mr Healey needs to admit that Government promises about savings from the new system were not worth the paper they were written on."
Co-operate for sake of public
LOCAL Government Minister John Healey said: "Although there has been some good co-operation and commitment to the new council, it has not been universal.
"And now for the sake of the residents in Northumberland, it is the time to fully concentrate on making the new council a success, rather than dragging their feet or putting up obstacles when that full co-operation is needed."
Referring to his intervention, he added: "I have not taken this step elsewhere. It is not to downplay the progress that has been made or the level of commitment that is there, but I want to see it everywhere.
"I am very clear in my letter that there is no delay, no going back."
'Absolutely, ridiculously untrue' allegation
DAVE Ledger, deputy leader of Wansbeck District Council, said it was "absolutely, ridiculously untrue" to suggest a lack of co-operation over the unitary authority.
"I don’t know where it has come from because the minister must have been advised by someone in Northumberland and I find that monstrously wrong," said the Labour councillor.
He added: "We have been fully part of the process to make the transition work and it hurts – my council is going to be wound up in six weeks time and for people to start putting the blame now at the 11th hour, I find absolutely ridiculous." Berwick council leader Isobel Hunter said Local Government Minister John Healey was being "unfair" amid uncertainty over the future of up to 160 council staff in the district. "I think possibly Berwick staff are not frightened to stand up and ask questions because we don’t have a choice of jobs," said the Liberal Democrat.
She added Berwick had planned spending carefully, with officers often performing three or four jobs, and that a funding shortfall could be partially caused by redundancy costs sparked by the town hall shake-up.
Districts are in denial
JEFF Reid, leader of Northumberland County Council, said: "A lot of the districts are in denial. They think if they scream loud enough, the Government will change its mind. They are still fighting old battles that were lost two years ago."
He added: "We are going to deliver services differently. We have taken as much out of the back office as we can to protect the front line. And people should not notice a lesser service."
The Liberal Democrat said a lack of co-operation had made the move to unitary status more difficult, but would not stop it with the Government never going to perform a U-turn.
"The realists have just gone with it. The rearguard action by the Labour party is not helpful," claimed Mr Reid.
He added a joint transition board was scrapped as there was nothing for it to do.
Repayments to be spread over years
NORTHUMBERLAND County Council will spread its multi-million pound redundancy payments to get its new budget through.
Government ministers have given the green light to the move – which will mean the new authority can introduce a flat rate of council tax for everyone in the county in its first year.
The financial cushion will also mean controversial proposals to slash spending on roads maintenance and double home care charges for elderly and disabled people this year have now been scaled down by the Liberal Democrat administration at County Hall.
Changes have been made by the minority group after the Department for Communities and Local Government agreed that the new unitary authority can capitalise up to £15m of its £18.5m redundancy costs.
This means the cost can be spread over a number of years instead of having to be paid up front, resulting in the new council now having more scope to avoid painful service cuts and rises in charges in its first year.
Yesterday Coun Andrew Tebbutt, executive member for corporate services, said: "We set out with a budget we didn’t want to do and we said it was too tough. The DCLG has responded and given us the opportunity to tackle priorities and ease things slightly.
"It has listened to what we say is the uniqueness of Northumberland’s problems. We have also done exactly what we said we would do; listened to the people and addressed issued they have raised."
The changes to the budget plans include reversing a £6m cut in capital spending on roads and putting £650,000 back into the highways revenue budget.
The maximum weekly charge for home care will now rise from £60 to £90 in April, rather than the £120 previously proposed.
It could rise to £150 in 2011/12, although this will be subject to further discussions as part of medium-term budget planning.
Equalising council tax in the first year will mean a 4.8% increase in Blyth Valley – which pays the lowest bills at present – and an average rise of 3.8% in other areas of the county to bring them all into line.
Coun Tebbutt said modern apprenticeships were now planned by the authority – a move suggested by the Labour group – and confirmed that the future of the Valley Care service for elderly people in Blyth Valley is guaranteed.
The revised package – together with alternative budget plans from the Conservative and Labour groups – will be discussed by the full council today.
Yesterday Conservative group leader, Peter Jackson, welcomed some of the changes, especially the equalisation of council tax bills.
"We were scathing about the attempt to cut the budget for the maintenance of our crumbling roads and also, at this time of hardship, we think it is particularly unfortunate that the council should attempt to double the home and day care charges for the elderly.
"We seem to be edging closer but there is still quite a lot in the budget proposals that we find unsatisfactory."