Cumbria and Northumberland CCs could survive as unitaries after the regional referendums this autumn, according to the Boundary Committee for England.
In contrast with the fate of districts, at least two counties appear to be on course to have their proposals for county-based unitaries put to the public vote. No proposals based on district boundaries were included in the committee's draft options (LGC, 5 December 2003).
Cumbria and Northumberland's options have already been whittled down to two by the committee, unlike the other four other counties up for the vote, Cheshire, Durham, Lancashire and North Yorkshire CCs. After the committee ruled out any new options being tabled, the formers' proposals for county-based unitaries are certain go to the public vote.
A committee spokeswoman said it is all but certain the final options will be chosen from the draft proposals.
She said: 'Realistically, the deputy commissioners have toyed with all sorts of permutations, but unless someone comes up with some incredible piece of argumentation it is highly unlikely there will be a new option.' This means:
--Voters in Cumbria will choose between a county unitary and a two-unitary option, amalgamating existing districts and also including Lancaster City Council.
--Voters in Northumberland will choose between a county and a two-unitary option.
The news comes amid escalating briefings on the direction of the review. A senior figure on the regional stage claims the committee will reject unitary bids by Cheshire and Lancashire CCs. He said: 'Cheshire is going for a unitary option with no illusions. They understand there is a likelihood that voters will be looking at options for two or three unitaries. And the committee is very sceptical about something of the size of Lancashire.'
However, Ches hire CC chief executive Jeremy Taylor claimed things were moving in the other direction in the county.
He said the single county option would not only be less costly than proposals to create two or three unitaries in Cheshire, but would also be least disruptive, given government plans to integrate children's services.
He said: 'It's going to be hugely risky in terms of delivering the children's services agenda if you carve up the big services [education and social services] into unitaries.'
Mr Taylor described the six Cheshire districts' favoured options - for three unitaries - as 'absolutely farcical in its cost and its risk'.
He added: 'There's no doubt that in Cheshire we're totally at odds with the district councils. The relationship is very strained.'
The process also has sparked district/ county conflict in Lancashire. The clashes reflect response levels to the consultation in the two counties, with 1,100 from Cheshire and 1,868 from Lancashire since December.
This compares to 477 from North Yorkshire, 305 from Cumbria, 300 from Durham and 97 from Northumberland.
The deadline for the consultation on the draft options ends on Monday. The committee will present its conclusions to the ODPM on 25 May.