The dawn of the super councils
By Richard Moss
The Politics Show's Richard Moss assesses how 551 fewer politicians will be serving our communities here in the North East of England with two super-councils taking the reins.
There's a silent revolution happening. The people in Northumberland and Durham may be barely aware of it. But on 1 April they will wake up to a new political era. And it'll be no Fools' Day joke.
Instead they will find the 13 district councils they have lived with for 35 years abolished off the face of the region. Instead all local government services will be provided by two super-councils (or unitaries).
The new Northumberland and Durham County Councils will still look after schools and social services and the like. But to that you can add bin-emptying, grass cutting, leisure centres. In fact if it's a council function - they'll do it.
But why a silent revolution? Well, that's what the leaderships of the two new councils are hoping for. They want people to wake up on 1 April and find their bins emptied, the roads swept, the leisure centre open, and think nothing has changed.
This change will have failed if people start wondering why a service isn't run as well as it used to be.
And I would guess the first few weeks will largely pass uneventfully. There may be some confusion when you get in touch with your local council to find its name has changed.
And indeed the first thing people may notice is the district council signs coming down. But it is more than the signs that will have disappeared.
Greenhouse in an allotment
A cull of councillors (metaphorical not literal I hasten to add) is taking place. On March 31 the two counties will have had 744 councillors. On 1 April, that tumbles to 193. That's 551 fewer politicians serving their communities. (You can make your own mind up whether you think that is good or bad news)
Connected to the community?
The danger though for the two new councils, is the loss of that local touch. There is genuine concern in areas like Berwick and Derwentside that they will lose out by not having a council to speak up for the area.
It is also unclear how many of the district council staff will still be working in the new council, or whether they will be working in the communities they know so well.
Consultations between the trades unions and the new councils about their employees are still continuing. The precise number of redundancies still unknown.
And although the county councils both talk a good game about remaining connected to their communities, the temptation will be there to centralise services.
But then again the reason these unitary councils were sold to people in the first place was their efficiency. Council tax would be lower than if you kept the existing two-tier structures, as you reaped the benefits of economies of scale.
So far that promise appears hollow though. For almost all people their new tax bill is higher. It's up on average almost 4 per cent this year in Northumberland, and almost 3% in County Durham. Of course it may have risen even more without reform but we will never know.
And within that there are variations to ensure differences in council tax bills across the districts are eliminated. This means while bills are rising by 4.85% in Blyth, they're actually dropping by 1% in Derwentside.
And although charges are being harmonised in County Durham, there will still be significant variations in Northumberland for some time to come. Something that may well grate with the losers.
We are also in unknown territory. Both the new councils are huge geographically. No single council has ever tried to cover areas as large or as diverse.
So there are challenges ahead. But there may still be advantages. Durham and Northumberland will now have one council to speak for their community. There'll no longer be the confusion about which authority is responsible for which service.
Rubbish being collected
And I am not sure many people would argue that the two counties needed as many councillors as they had.
But the true test of this change won't come on 1 April. It will take years before we know whether this silent revolution was worth shouting about, or whether people will hanker after the days of the districts.
The Politics Show will be putting viewers' questions to the leaders of the new Northumberland and Durham County Councils on the programme on Sunday 29 March. If you have a question or comment, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The councils that will be abolished on 1 April are as follows:
last updated: 01/04/2009 at 17:03