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Politics matters

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Unitaries need to be flagships, says John Healey, local government minister.

In less than 10 months’ time, the future of seven counties and the home to over 3.2 million people will be transformed with the birth of nine new unitary councils.

With combined budgets of£2.4bn, the new unitary councils will replace all 44 councils currently in Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire. These plans for reorganisation, proposed by councils and now approved by Parliament, are set to radically reform local governance in these areas: empowering local communities; streamlining service delivery; creating the strong local leadership needed to deliver economic prosperity; and making annual savings over£100m.

'Communities expect the best'

Local communities rightly expect nothing less than the best possible governance for their area. In each of these areas there is an ambitious vision to achieve success economically, socially, environmentally and culturally.

From day one, on 1 April 2009, the nine new unitaries will need to be running smoothly, with fully operational local services. They will need to be making obvious improvements in services from the outset, have a balanced budget, and affordable council tax.

Many people are already hard at work to make this happen. I recognise it will be tough, and my responsibility is to ensure that government provides whatever help and support wherever we can.

This is not just a simple process of transition, but one of transformational change. There must be a complete reshaping of political leadership in each of the areas. Seven separate authorities in Cornwall, for example, will continue to give single political governance for the whole area.

There will be major transfers of staff, property, finances, responsibilities and contracts. Work must be done to put in place arrangements for empowering and involving the most local of their communities, and there will need to be a root and branch overhaul of all council services. In two years time, we expect each of the unitaries should be a flagship council for the rest of the country.

'Deliver ambitious plans'

We in government will play our part, in particular creating the necessary legal framework for these changes. Already we have in place the legislation for staff transfers, ensuring transferring staff will have TUPE protection. And in discussion with the councils, we are preparing further regulations, including those on finance, property transfers, and ceremonial matters to ensure we preserve the historic traditions of cities such as Chester and Durham.

Next week, I will meet the leaders of the nine new unitary councils. I want to hear first-hand about the progress that they are making, and the challenges they face. I also want to hear how they see our role in supporting the necessary changes.

The task of the leaders is to deliver the ambitious governance plans for their area which their local councils proposed. The responsibility will be theirs to ensure that the vision for the future governance of their area is achieved, that they set up arrangements to empower local communities, that local services are streamlined, and that they promote economic prosperity.

Ultimately, however, they will be held accountable for the success of this change through the ballot box. We will work closely with them in the months ahead, and keep a close eye on progress. The leaders of these nine councils have a once in a generation chance to shape the future of their communities for years to come. It is an opportunity that is at one and the same time enviable and challenging. And one to which I know they are completely committed.

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