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By Political Correspondent Mithran Samuel ...
By Political Correspondent Mithran Samuel

Forty-four northern districts face abolition under the Boundary Committee for England's draft reorganisation proposals because they are considered to lack the capacity for unitary government.

In the first stage of its review of two-tier government in the North, the committee rejected submissions by three councils - Chester City Council, Chorley BC and West Lancashire DC - to acquire unitary status.

In total, around half the districts in the north-east, north-west, and Yorkshire and the Humber had their submissions rejected, as the committee put its initial recommendations out to consultation.

In the reviews of the mid-1990s, 35 districts were converted into unitaries but, according to the committee, councils' increasingly strategic role means size is now a more significant factor.

However, it also questioned the potential of counties to be responsive enough

to local communities, despite accepting proposals for unitary status from five of the six under review, and making only minor modifications to Lancashire CC's similar plan.

Reorganisation is expected to go ahead only if there is a vote in favour in the referendums planned for next autumn.

But, according to committee chair Pamela Gordon, councils in the North and elsewhere are becoming increasingly supportive of unitary government on its own merits, suggesting reorganisation could develop enough momentum to survive 'no' votes in the referendums.

Two options have been proposed by the committee for Cumbria and Northumberland, three for Cheshire, Lancashire, and Durham, and four for North Yorkshire.

The committee will seek to whittle down the number of options in each county area to two, though Ms Gordon admitted this may not be possible in every case.

It recommended six existing metropolitan and unitary councils expand into two-tier areas, despite the fact one of these - Sefton MBC - explicitly stated it does not want to be included.

The plans survived an 11th-hour bid b y Bury MBC to stop their publication, after the committee rejected its proposal to merge with Rossendale BC because of its weak 2002 comprehensive performance assessment.

Chief executive Mark Sanders said Bury has evidence of marked improvement and may take the issue to judicial review if it feels the committee is continuing to ignore its case.

Mrs Gordon said upgrading existing districts was ruled out because 'new unitaries [will] have to have enough clout to hold their own in discussions with regional assemblies yet also have the resources to handle the major services'.

But in a message to counties, she added: 'That has to be balanced by an understanding of how to respond to local communities.'

The committee will look carefully at proposals by counties to overcome democratic deficits through devolution to area committees and collaboration with parish and town councils.

The consultation runs until 23 February, and the committee will present its final recommendations to deputy prime minister John Prescott before 25 May.


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