A Cumbria County Council cabinet report has asked that chief executive Katherine Fairclough be authorised to submit a business case to Government that would see it and six district councils replaced by a new body.
Reform has been on the table for several years. In December 2018 Cumbria County Council agreed, following a debate at full council, to submit an expression of interest in exploring options for local government reorganisation to a unitary model.
At present, the county includes six district, borough or city councils: Allerdale, Barrow, Carlisle, Copeland, Eden and South Lakeland.
Since 2018, discussions have taken place with then-Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry and his successor Simon Clarke, as local leaders look to align their interests with much-vaunted Government aspirations around “levelling-up” and the potential expansion of devolution deals – simplified local governance being seen as a necessary platform for devolution.
The most recent ministerial discussions took place in July this year, which saw an invitation issued to submit proposals.
Three options are explored in the draft proposition and business case: the status quo; a single unitary council replacing the six districts and county council; and two unitary councils, replacing the six districts and county council.
According to the report: “A single new unitary authority for Cumbria is the only solution which will significantly reduce the complexity faced by residents, customers and partners when attempting to contact or access local authority services in the current system.
“This new council will provide a single, accountable voice for Cumbria at regional and national level. It will enable a strengthened system and democratic leadership answerable to local people. It will create a single local authority with substantial purchasing power able to play a significant part in the local economy and provide enriching employment opportunities across the county.
“It will provide the organisational scale and capacity that will ensure that public services accelerate the improvement journey, building on the progress over the last few years. It will provide the platform for further modernisation and transformation of outcomes and a potential future devolution deal for the county.”
Perhaps mindful of opposition from parties fearing a centralisation of powers, the report stresses that the changes would represent a chance for increased localism. The report said: “At the centre of the proposals is the empowerment of local communities and the strengthening of Town and Parish Councils. The aspiration is to build on existing locality arrangements and progress on a principle of ‘local first’, based on ambitious devolution to Town and Parish Councils.
“Further work and engagement with members, residents and partners on how to achieve this, including the models that could be put in place, will be a key priority to further develop these proposals over the coming weeks.”
Should the plans progress, a transition to the new structure could take place in spring 2022, with spring 2021’s local elections being postponed.