The pace is gathering on progress towards what could be the biggest change to politics in Cumbria for decades, and the county's existing political figures are now deep in discussion over what they want that change to look like.

The Government is currently gathering the opinions of councils and residents across Cumbria on the proposals on the table for local government reorganisation in the county, after launching an eight week consultation on the matter late last month.

Should change go ahead, it would be the first alterations in nearly 50 years to way local government in Cumbria is structured.

Split opinion

The leaderships of all seven local authorities in Cumbria are in favour of changing the status quo - six district councils responsible for certain services in their area, plus Cumbria County Council sitting atop them, responsible for other services.

However, there is a considerable difference of opinion among the local authorities as to what that change should look like.

And, while the leadership of each council has backed one of the four suggestions now forming the substance of the Government's consultation on local government reorganisation, this week's Copeland Borough Council overview and scrutiny committee meeting demonstrated the breadth of opinion on just what is the best way forward for Cumbria.

West Cumbrian preference

Copeland Borough Council, led by Conservative mayor Mike Starkie, submitted a proposal along with Allerdale Borough Council, led by Conservative leader Mike Johnson, to the Government for two unitary authorities, split along an "east and west" division.

This would involve bringing together the areas currently covered by Carlisle, Allerdale and Copeland councils into a west Cumbria authority, and bringing together the areas currently covered by Eden, South Lakeland and Barrow councils into an east Cumbria authority.

However, Carlisle and Eden councils have proposed a "north and south" split - Carlisle, Allerdale and Eden as one north Cumbria authority, and the Copeland, South Lakeland and Barrow areas as one south Cumbrian authority.

In both of these proposals, a strategic combined authority would sit atop them - though this would not be another council.

South Lakeland and Barrow councils have jointly submitted a bid to create a "Morecambe Bay" authority, joining with the Lancaster area, leaving the rest of Cumbria to join together as another authority.

And Cumbria County Council has proposed the creation of one single unitary authority covering the entire county.

Detailed discussions

All of this was discussed in detail at Copeland Borough Council's overview and scrutiny committee meeting on Monday, and while there was a measure of support expressed among the politically mixed committee membership for the proposal submitted by the council's executive, there was diversity among the opinions shared on how best the county should proceed on local government reform.

Labour councillor for Kells and the committee's chairman, John Kane, expressed concern over supporting an arrangement that involved joining with Carlisle, when Carlisle City Council's proposal expressed a preference for joining with the Eden and Allerdale areas.

"It's very difficult partnering with someone who doesn't want to partner with you," he said.

But Copeland Borough Council's chief executive, Pat Graham, advised that once the final decision is made on local government reform, all those involved will "work together" to "make it a success".

"When that decision is made, and it's a ministerial decision - whatever that decision is, all that's gone before will be pushed aside," she said.

"We will work together on whatever model we're told to work together on, and we will make it a success."

Mrs Graham said that the proposal submitted by Copeland Borough Council represents both "value for money" and "local needs".

"In terms of value for money we think the implementation of our model will be paid off within two years," she said.

"We think the running cost for our model will be seven per cent lower than now."

'A real culture'

Mrs Graham added that the proposal submitted by Copeland and Allerdale is not only "appropriate based on the scale of the population", but also recognises the way the county is connected.

"We move along the coastal strip north and south - all our infrastructure connections take us up the west coast up to Carlisle," she said.

Critically, Mrs Graham suggested, the proposal for the amalgamation of the Carlisle, Allerdale and Copeland areas keeps Allerdale and Copeland, and therefore west Cumbria, together.

"We see that west has got a real culture around rugby, around identity, our industrial history," she said.

This, Mrs Graham explained, was one of the key driving factors in the council supporting a Carlisle, Allerdale and Copeland east and west option, over a Copeland, South Lakes and Barrow north and south option.

"We have a fundamental issue around our culture and our community, and our affiliation with Allerdale, and our economic functioning area," she said.

"Our big issue isn't around whether the north and south could work functionally, it's really around community identity and people, and not being in the same unitary with the area formerly known as Allerdale is not acceptable to us.

"There's a whole nuclear policy and strategy strand around that as well, in terms of our culture and knowledge.

"In Allerdale, that's where a lot of the supply chain is located.

"That could potentially be an economic issue."

On the broader issue of value for money achieved through changing Cumbria's council structure, Labour councillor for Egremont, Sam Pollen, suggested that the model for a single council backed by Cumbria County Council represented "more value for money".

"That's what the stats and the facts say," he said.

Mrs Graham acknowledged that the county council's proposal involves "significant" savings, of £96.5m over five years.

But she added: "We're concerned about the strength of savings and what that means for service delivery."

Mrs Graham also said that "the proposal from the county majors very heavily on continuity, but is almost silent on the opportunities for transformation and improvement."

However, Mrs Graham was keen to stress that no one proposal on the table was without merit.

"Every model has got strengths, every model has got weaknesses," she said.

'Value for money'

While Mr Pollen said there would be a "lot of positives from the Copeland proposal", he added that he felt a single unitary authority authority is "far simpler than anything anybody else is putting forward".

This suggestion was challenged by Copeland's mayor, Mike Starkie, who said that "from a resident's perspective", whichever bid wins out, "residents will be part of a single unitary authority".

"It will be one council dealing with all the residents' issues," Mr Starkie said.

"In terms of value for money, I think it's fair to say that in the 'One Cumbria' bid, [Cumbria County Council] have identified a number of savings, but saving money doesn't always equate to value for money," Mr Starkie added.

"There's a lot about resilience, about sense of place, that comes into play."

Mr Starkie also sought to clarify the role of the proposed combined authority.

"In terms of the combined authority that's overarching, I think it's important for everyone to understand that that is not another tier, another council on top of a council, the combined authority would have no councillors," he said.

"It's a strategic set-up, that's designed to attract investment in."

Mr Starkie suggested that this would address a "weakness" in the current council set-up for Cumbria.

"One of the weaknesses of the current situation in all the councils is that they've got no real economic development capacity, at either county or district level," he said.

While committee members Sam Pollen and Cleator Moor Labour councillor Linda Jones-Bulman were vocal about their preference for a single unitary authority, John Kane and Black Combe and Scafell Conservative councillor Ged McGrath noted that the model of reorganisation they would have ideally preferred is not "on the table", as part of the Government's consultation.

Nuclear profile

Both councillors said that they would have preferred an option which included the joining together of the Copeland, Allerdale and Barrow areas, with Mr Kane adding that "the nuclear link is there with Barrow", given its industrial profile.

However, as Mrs Graham explained, such a suggestion was not backed by any of the county's authorities, given the "functional and procedural" issue arising from the fact the existing Barrow Borough Council area does not border Copeland Borough Council, and instead only shares a border with South Lakeland District Council.

"We all recognise our cultural and industrial history with Barrow," she said, however she stressed that it has been made "abundantly clear" that there is a strong desire for Barrow to break away from Cumbria.

While there were a number of councillors who voiced opinions on local government that differed from Copeland's executive at Monday's committee meeting, there was also a number of committee members who expressed support for the proposal backed by the council's leadership.

One of those was Conservative councillor for St Bees, Jeffrey Hailes.

"To me, you should always go for strength in depth," he said.

"Copeland, Allerdale and Carlisle will always be a strong model."

Mr Hailes said that through some surveying he has recently undertaken, he understands there is a "cross-section" of people at the Sellafield nuclear site who "fully support" Copeland, Allerdale and Carlisle model.

Mr Hailes also expressed a clear preference for the Copeland area not being in an authority alongside the South Lakes area, citing the widespread difference of opinion often expressed in the region on major issues such the proposals for the coking coal mine in Whitehaven.

Next steps

As with the other six local authorities, Copeland Borough Council will soon be submitting an official response to the Government's consultation process on local government reorganisation, which ends on April 19.

Outlining the next steps in the process to Monday's meeting, Mrs Graham explained that it is expected a decision on the chosen new model for local government in Cumbria will be likely be announced in "late spring", or "early summer".

"Then at that point the whole process around structural change will begin," she said.

"We know that county council elections have been suspended this year, pending elections to a shadow authority next year."

Following that, the march towards change will "move very quickly", Mrs Graham said.

"It's a very tight timetable to deliver," she said.

If Secretary of State for Local Government Robert Jenrick decides to make a change to local government in Cumbria, it is expected that a new authority or authorities will take over the running of the county in April 2023.

Members of the public are invited to respond to the consultation on proposals for local government reorganisation in Cumbria, and can do so via an online form, by email or by post.