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DISTRICTS FALL ON THEIR SWORDS FOR UNITARY IDEAL

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Districts are prepared to slash the number of existing councils now serving a third of shire England in order to es...
Districts are prepared to slash the number of existing councils now serving a third of shire England in order to establish 75 unitary authorities. In submissions due to be handed in to the Local Government Commission today 13 branches of the Association of District Councils propose replacing 123 existing councils with 75 unitary authorities.

They claim their proposals would save taxpayers £125 million a year by the turn of the century. However, there is disagreement in the 14th area due to submit plans today, Leicestershire. Three districts are supporting the county option of preserving two tiers while the remaining six support setting up unitary authorities.

Most of the 14 county councils support the status quo. The Association of County Councils maintains reorganisation will cost over £1 billion.

The district branches say the transitional costs would total around £300m with pay back periods of up to five years. The submissions disguise local disputes. For example, South Ribble BC Leader Ken Palmer has attacked the joint proposal from his council and nine other Lancashire districts to set up nine unitary authorities in the county.

The joint submission's first option divides South Ribble between Preston, Chorley and Blackburn BCs, while a second option merges most of South Ribble with Preston and part of Ribble Valley BC.South Ribble ideally wanted to become a unitary authority, and had a fallback position of merging with Preston.

After the high court ruling that the government's policy guidance on the review could not be allowed effectively to rule out the two tier option, South Ribble scrapped the Preston merger option and replaced it with a proposal for a modified two tier structure. This would devolve more county powers to the borough.

But the council has not formally withdrawn its name from the joint submission. 'I am very angry we have been put in a position by which our name is linked to a document we no longer support in any way', Mr Palmer said.

Among the exceptions Staffordshire CC is proposing unitary status for Stoke-on-Trent and two tier local government for the rest of the county, Berkshire CC is proposing four unitary authorities and Devon CC is opting for a unitary Plymouth and a two tier remainder.

Proposals from 11 of the ADC branch submissions fall within the commission's advised population range of between 150,000 and 250,000. The exceptions are Cumbria, where the average population would be 99,000, and Nottinghamshire, which would be 128,000.

The commission has shown a readiness to consider setting up unitary authorities with relatively small populations. For example, it has endorsed a proposal for Hartlepool with a population of 90,000. The full list of areas due to make submissions by today is Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Devon, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire and Suffolk.

Consultations are expected to take place on the commission's draft proposals between 23 May and 22 July, and the commission is expected to submit its final recommendations to the government by the end of September. A further 14 county areas have to have submissions in by 29 April and the last five are due by 27 May.

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