Town v country again at councils

A single council would be incapable of running Northumberland in the interests of all its people, MPs from all three main parties said yesterday.

Sunderland returning officer Jeff Fitzgerald announces the results of the regional assembly referendum in 2004

A single council would be incapable of running Northumberland in the interests of all its people, MPs from all three main parties said yesterday.

Their comments came after Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly invited counties including Northumberland, Durham and Cumbria to scrap one tier of local government.

Leaders of all three county councils yesterday said they favoured a move to single-tier authorities.

But that is not welcomed by district leaders, threatening to reignite battles for the future of local government which were fought before the 2004 regional assembly referendum.

One senior district chief in Durham yesterday urged the county council to pull back from calling for the scrapping of two-tier government.

And Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said Northumberland County Council leader Bill Brooks's statement on Thursday in favour of a unitary structure was "far too premature".

"I can understand why they want to make a bid for power, but they ought to be aware people in the North-East voted in the regional government referendum to maintain their district councils," said the Conservative MP.

"You've got to convince people that what you replace it with will benefit them in their localities. There's a geographic spread and different problems in different communities.

"Simply coming out and saying county government's going to be better would not convince anybody."

Liberal Democrat Alan Beith, who represents Berwick, and Labour MP for Blyth Valley Ronnie Campbell have voiced support for unitary structures.

But Mr Campbell advocated dividing the county in two, saying: "Northumberland is split into two categories - one rural and one urban - and the two don't mix."

He said so many services had been "sold off" that "you've got to wonder why we need a county council". Mr Beith went further, calling for three councils, to represent the south-east, south-west and north of the county.

He said ending the two-tier set-up was sensible to end confusion over service provision, with Berwick Council's recent decision to advertise for planning staff in Australia a sign of how the current system was creaking.

"It's difficult in Northumberland, though, because of the size of the area. One unitary authority would be very big indeed. My personal preference would be for three unitary authorities... "We've had decisions taken by the county council, such as over college transport, which have taken no account of life in the remote areas."

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Harsh words of colleagues

District council bosses in Northumberland will stage talks next week on how to stop the county swallowing up their powers after this week's White Paper.

County Council leader Bill Brooks responded to an invitation to bid for single-tier local government by saying it was the only solution to change the "confusing and expensive" set-up. But Blyth Valley Council leader Dave Stephens last night accused his Labour colleague of "absolute disregard for public opinion".

Leader of Durham's Derwentside Council Alex Watson pleaded with town and county hall chiefs to avoid a similar row. Coun Stephens said: "To suggest that the only option for unitary status in Northumberland is a huge, impersonal and remote county council is arrogant in the extreme...

"I have long stopped believing that there is any chance of Northumberland County Council actually listening to Northumberland residents."

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What voters said

The Government planned in 2004 to switch to a single-tier system in Durham and Northumberland if an elected assembly was set up.

Voters in Northumberland had two options. In option A one unitary council would have run the whole county. Option B would have meant a split between the south-east, containing Blyth Valley and Wansbeck, and the rural remainder.

Voters backed the latter option with a 15,000 majority.

However, Berwick MP Alan Beith suggested a third option yesterday - splitting the county in three.

It would divide it into the south-east, containing Blyth Valley and Wansbeck; south-west, consisting of Tynedale and the southern half of Castle Morpeth; and the north, incorporating the rest of Castle Morpeth with Alnwick and Berwick.

In Durham, voters were asked to choose between a single council for the whole county (option A) or splitting into three (option B).

The latter would have seen the creation of East Durham, comprising Durham City and Easington; North Durham, of Chester-le-Street and Derwentside; and South Durham, comprising Sedgefield, Teesdale and Wear Valley. In the referendum, 89,149 voted for one authority and 87,050 for three.

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Voice in wilderness

The plethora of councils in the North-East's shire counties is illustrated by the number of people per councillor.

In Tyne and Wear, which is split into five areas each run by one council, there are 3,221 people for every councillor.

However, in Durham, where there are seven districts running individual areas, while the whole county comes under the remit of the county council, there are 1,316 people per councillor.

And in Northumberland, where there are six district councils and one county council, there is a councillor for every 1,004 people.

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