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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

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Big step forward for unitary authority bid

Eric Martlew:  The Carlisle MP has called for a referendum

By Julian Whittle

Political editor

CUMBRIA County Council’s bid to create a single local authority for the whole of Cumbria took a giant step forward this week.

Local Government Minister Phil Woolas announced that the proposal to replace the county council and Cumbria’s six district councils was one of 16 similar bids nationwide to be given the all-clear for consultation.

And it has emerged that, of these 16, Cumbria is one of three front-runners alongside North Yorkshire and Durham.

If ministers give final approval in July, it will trigger the biggest shake-up of local government since Cumbria came into being in 1974.

Mr Woolas said: “The consultation will now have to pass harder tests as we are talking about tens of millions of pounds of public money and improving public services.

“None of the proposals will go ahead unless they are able to demonstrate that council tax will be cut. I will not allow a levelling up, I will only allow a levelling down.

“They will need to demonstrate that health and education and public services will benefit from this.”

Whitehall officials have scored them all against five criteria set out in the recent Local Government White Paper.

Cumbria’s is one of three to score “high” on all five, greatly boosting its chance of success.

The consultation will involve organisations such as Cumbria Police, Cumbria Primary Care Trust, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, Cumbria Tourism and the Northwest Development Agency, but not the public at large.

However, Carlisle MP Eric Martlew – who opposes having a single all-Cumbria council or “unitary authority” – believes there should be a referendum to coincide with the district council elections on May 3.

He said: “Let the people decide. There’s is only one option, it’s either the county unitary or nothing.”

The county council says its proposal would save £22m a year by cutting duplication and bureaucracy and slashing the number of councillors.

Band-D council-tax bills in Carlisle, for example, would be £100-a-year lower in 2011 than if the two-tier system continues.

If ministers give the go-ahead, elections for the 84-councillor authority will be held in May 2008 and it will come into being in 2009.

Cumbria’s district councils – Carlisle, Allerdale, Eden, Copeland, South Lakeland and Barrow – would disappear and are bitterly opposed to the county council’s plan.

The White Paper invited them to table proposals to replace two-tier local government in Cumbria, which ministers think is wasteful, but they failed to do so by the January 25 deadline.

Since then, however, all the districts except Eden have been working on plans for four Cumbrian unitaries, which they hope Secretary of State Ruth Kelly will still consider.

Those plans have been approved in principle by the five councils, subject to a satisfactory financial case, although Carlisle believes there is an argument for having six unitary councils based on existing district boundaries.

City council leader Mike Mitchelson said: “The county council’s bid is not a good bid. I doubt whether the financial information will stack up and I don’t think it’s in the best interest of communities.”

What are your views? Write to: The Editor, The Cumberland News, Newspaper House, Dalston Road, Carlisle, CA2 5UA. Email letters@cumbrian-newspapers.co.uk.

Opinion: page 12

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