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COUNTY FORGES LINKS FOR A NEW COUNCIL

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Cumbria CC is telling the Boundary Committee how a ground-breaking new plan will strengthen the links between counc...
Cumbria CC is telling the Boundary Committee how a ground-breaking new plan will strengthen the links between councils and people in the county. It is confident that a new all-purpose authority for the county would represent the people of Cumbria well and it has given further evidence to the Boundary Committee on how that could be achieved.

Cumbria leader Rex Toft said:

'The county council is already laying the foundations for new ways of engaging with the many local communities in Cumbria and making sure their voices are heard by local authorities.

'This strategy will benefit the people of Cumbria and its councils at all levels, whatever the result of the referendum on regional government and any subsequent reorganisation.

'The key new proposal is the establishment of a Cumbria Democracy Commission, with a membership drawn from many walks of life in the county. The commission will look at innovative ways of bringing together communities to represent their interests in all sorts of areas. The work of the commission will in due course be made available to all local authorities in the county.

'We are confident that measures like this can overcome the problems caused by Cumbria's almost unique set of circumstances because of the sparcity factor.'

The county council has proposed to the Boundary Committee a new unitary council for the whole of Cumbria, should there be a vote in favour of regional government in the northwest. The Boundary Committee accepted a number of arguments put forward by the county council for a single, all-purpose authority to replace both the county and the district councils. Those arguments include the ability to act strategically, lower costs for the changeover and lower running costs, extending the economies of scale to what are now district council services.

But the Boundary Committee had reservations about the county council case when it came to:

-Representing the people - the committee questioned whether a populat ion of 488,000 would be too big for community identities and interests to be reflected adequately and for a new unitary council to engage effectively with local issues and residents.

-Improving representation - the committee questioned whether the county council's idea of developing parish and town councils to provide extra representation was practicable in such a large unitary authority.

-Local feelings -- research showed that Cumbrians generally did not feel a strong affinity with the county area

-Performance management - The Audit Commission had criticised the county council's performance management.

However, Cumbria CC has already recognised the complexity and importance of identifying local communities and is establishing a Cumbria Democracy Commission, with membership drawn from the private, public and voluntary sectors, academic circles and from individuals.

The commission will identify building blocks of communities, basing them on parish council areas. They will be able to band together to make residents' voices heard on all sorts of issues and by all sorts of public bodies.

This could result in a unitary authority delegating power to a local committee or to a parish council or group of parish councils which have achieved a satisfactory standard of performance by qualifying as quality parishes.

It could also be that the commission will come up with entirely new ideas to add to the many ways in which the county council already connects with residents, which include local committees, neighbourhood forums, partnerships, a wide range of consultations and councillors' surgeries.

On area and population, the county council points out that Aberdeenshire and Dumfries and Galloway are of comparable size and the Highland Council area is larger. Draft recommendations for unitary authorities in Cheshire, County Durham, Lancashire and other areas contain options with areas or populations as great as Cumbria's.

As for a county identity, research shows that 43 per cent of residents feel strongly that they belong to Cumbria and this is higher than the 38 per cent of the population in Cheshire and not out of line with other county areas.

On performance, the county council says that the present council has taken steps to address the issues raised in the downgrading from 'fair' to 'weak' of its overall comprehensive performance assessment. A speedy recovery and major improvement programme is in hand. The council has developed a performance management framework and is employing new and sophisticated monitoring.

* COUNTIES OUTLIVE DISTRICTS IN REGIONAL RESTRUCTURE

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