Town hall shake-up hangs in balance

The future of a town hall shake-up ordered by the Government could today be decided in the High Court.

The future of a town hall shake-up ordered by the Government could today be decided in the High Court.

Ministers could learn whether a legal challenge over their powers to order a national review of councils - covering Northumberland and County Durham - has been successful or not.

And if the action by Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council, in Shropshire, is successful, it could throw the entire process into chaos because a judge may slap an moratorium on a public consultation under way ahead of a judicial review.

Across the North-East, the debate about the future of local government has become increasingly bitter with accusations being traded by supporters and opponents of unitary town halls in Northumberland and County Durham.

In Northumberland, district council chiefs have called for two unitary councils - along rural and urban lines - while county bosses have proposed a single super- authority.

District councils in Durham are opposing the creation of a single county authority, proposed by the county council, which is being discussed as part of a wider public consultation on proposed changes across the country.

A spokesman for Shrewsbury and Atcham Council said it had begun arguing its case at the High Court yesterday and that the judge in the case could make a ruling today against the Department for Communities and Local Government.

"Our legal team are very confident we will win," added the spokesman, who also revealed a delegation will meet Local Government Minister Phil Woolas to discuss the issues today.

But Hexham MP Peter Atkinson warned that a more efficient local government system was now needed in Northumberland to ensure the right structure was in place to give local people a bigger say and ensure powers could be handed over from Whitehall.

The Tory MP - who backs two unitary authorities in the county - added it was up to the Government to "finish" the process, although he stressed it was not above the law.

The latest twist in the unitary council saga comes after Northumberland's MPs last month urged the Government to accept the two-council solution to any town hall overhaul in the county.

Liberal Democrat Alan Beith, Tory Peter Atkinson and Labour MPs Denis Murphy and Ronnie Campbell called for two unitary councils along urban and rural lines to improve services and efficiency in a unique show of cross-party unity.

County council bosses are proposing a single authority to cover the entire county - a call backed by, among others, the North-East Chamber of Commerce.


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