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Carlisle MP urges Government to cut Cumbrian councils from seven to two

Any day now, a letter will land on a Government minister’s desk asking him to consider redrawing Cumbria’s political map.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will be urged to scrap all seven councils currently running the county and start afresh with perhaps just two.

It is a move that the politician behind the latest campaign for change – Carlisle MP John Stevenson – believes would provide better leadership and improved services.

And it would appear that he is not likely to be completely stonewalled as he tries to gather support – even from some of the councillors whose demise the move could bring.

Stewart Young, the Carlisle Labour councillor who is deputy leader of Cumbria County Council, has perhaps been the clearest so far in his support for the so-called unitary authorities that change would most likely bring.

He said this week: “The current system is totally dysfunctional. We have far too many councillors, it’s not cost effective and it totally confuses the public.

“In the county council there is cross-party support for this. We really are like the turkeys that vote for Christmas.”

Mr Stevenson has already asked Cumbria’s five other MPs to support his letter and says he has had backing confirmed from Penrith and the Border’s Rory Stewart and Tim Farron, the South Lakes’ man at Westminster.

Only time will tell whether their support will be able to trigger action from a minister who famously said in opposition that he would keep a loaded pearl-handled revolver in his drawer and shoot the first civil servant who suggested local government reorganisation.

But Mr Stevenson’s belief that change is needed has certainly triggered debate.

He argues it would be more efficient if the seven councils that currently govern Cumbria – the county and six districts – were cut to two, reducing councillor and senior management numbers, costs and public confusion over responsibilities.

The Conservative believes that the present structure has been flagged by businesses and others as an obstacle to growth and that change would bring better services.

There are currently 371 councillors across Cumbria’s authorities, seven chief executives, seven senior management teams and six council tax collection authorities, serving a population of about 500,000 people.

Unitary Sheffield, which has a similar population, has 84 councillors with one chief executive and senior management team. Since revealing his plans to lobby Government in The Cumberland News last week, Mr Stevenson says the response has been “favourable”.

“There is a genuine belief that unitaries are the way forward,” he said.

““I will be trying to get a meeting with Eric Pickles or one of the ministers in his department to discuss it.”

Any change could have widespread implications, not least for the thousands of Cumbrians who could end up with new employers.

A key factor in the push for revamping Cumbria’s local governance, former Carlisle city councillor Mr Stevenson believes, could be the money-saving potential as councils continue to make savings in response to public spending cuts.

Mr Pickles has made no secret of the fact that he thinks councils should share so-called back-office functions – such as payroll and IT – to make savings and is something councils in Cumbria have already done.

Of course, calls for council changes in Cumbria are nothing new.

In 2007, Cumbria County Council failed in a campaign to get one unitary authority for Cumbria – a move it said could then have saved £22.2 million a year.

Opposition from the districts and MPs to those plans played heavily on the fact that they thought Cumbria was too big for just one council.

An early suggestion this time around would be to have a north-south divide in the county – or even perhaps following the example of the hospitals authority and having a council for the north and west and another for Morecambe Bay, although that would require changes in Lancashire too.

Should Mr Pickles order a review, it would be down to the Local Government Boundary Commission to come up with proposals that people could be consulted on.

But Mr Young believes that the support of MPs is vital if the current calls stand any chance of success and for the debate to be properly opened.

He said: “We have been trying to get unitary for years.

“We would be especially supportive if they could persuade the Government to give us the extra money needed to create two or more unitaries.

“All the legislation coming out of the Government is designed for unitary authorities. There are hardly any two-tier areas left.

“We are in the middle of trying to save £88m.

“Having a unitary authority would be a good way of saving some of that money. It really is a no-brainer.”

Opinions in the districts of Carlisle, Eden, Allerdale, Copeland, South Lakeland and Barrow is, however, split.

Carlisle councillor John Mallinson has a foot in both camps as deputy leader of Carlisle city and a member of the county council.

The Conservative believes some sort of change is inevitable, but adds: “I don’t think it will happen all that quickly. John Stevenson first needs to convince Eric Pickles that it is a good idea.

“I am looking towards a much more rational and inclusive debate on the issue than we had the last time. Everyone needs to talk about it properly, but we need the Government to fire the starting gun first.”

Mr Mallinson thinks Cumbria is too big for one unitary and agrees that two would make sense, but that councils should discuss how that might be done.

The personal view of Eden leader, Conservative Gordon Nicolson, is to be supportive of unitaries.

“I say that because I think the public do not recognise the difference between the district and county councils,” he said. “If you have a unitary, it perhaps addresses a bit of that point.”

Mr Nicolson, however, was among the opponents to the last unitary bid.

“The reason for that was that Cumbria is too big and too diverse for a single unitary,” he explained.

“Councils need to be able to identify with their communities.

“I think the new Localism Act is going to encourage and promote a much higher level of community involvement.

“Many people would see a single local authority for Cumbria as perhaps a bit removed.

“Two unitaries is a reasonable starting point.

“What you need to look for is a cohesive area where you could have a council that people identify with – if we get to that stage.”

Mr Nicolson, however, believes there needs to be a mandate for change – with councils joining forces to draw together a proposal – before the Boundary Commission is called in.

In west Cumbria, Copeland leader Elaine Woodburn is clear in her opposition and believes Mr Stevenson’s call highlights “ignorance” towards the role local authorities play and urged him to concentrate on lobbying Government not to slash local authority budgets.

The Labour politician said: “Copeland Council’s role is to serve the people of this borough, and that will always be our priority.

“We have a unique role to play in the country’s energy future and in dealing with some major issues relating to our nuclear heritage.

“Our view is that the communities most affected by these issues should have their views heard.

“We do not believe this would happen if Cumbria was covered by one, large unitary authority.”

All of Cumbria’s councils have been in existence since 1974.

The county, which has by far and away the biggest budget at £784m, looks after services including highways, schools and social care while the districts control matters including planning, refuse collections and licensing.

Have your say

I agree with this totally, the council needs far more transparancy, still has the 'firewall type mentality', when trying to get any info from them, our local council has people in strategic positions brought/moved from other large cities! making important decisions on our housing decision, WHY? are they really going to be concerned to preserve the character of the town? NO, and now when you go through the town there is nothing other than new build houses in every microacre of space, housing people from other problem areas, at the taxpayers expense...... thanks Tony/Gordon

Posted by dorrick on 31 March 2012 at 22:45

Any effort to reduce the budget of Cumbria can only be greeted with open arms. The senior staff members of the Council who are the benifactors of the exising system can hold their head in shame if they do not agree with this cost saving idea. If it were a business it would have been done long ago.

Posted by Shashlik on 11 March 2012 at 15:41

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