Published:

Cllr Hilary Carrick is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Cumbria County Council.

Cumbria has been striving to achieve unitary local government status for nearly two decades. The first real opportunity came in 2006 when a White Paper on local communities aimed to initiate a rebalancing of the relationship between central and local government, and local people, by giving “more power to citizens and communities to have a bigger say in the services they receive and the places where they live”. In explaining its ambitions for the future, the document made specific reference to two-tier Cumbria as a county with a disproportionately high number of council leaders and other elected executive members for the size of its population.

The White Paper was accompanied by an invitation to councils in two-tier areas to submit bids for either unitary status or a system of “enhanced two-tier working” which would involve greater integration between the tiers. In response to both this, as well as the recent findings of an independent commission on democracy in the county which had concluded that “Cumbria is over-governed and under led”, a bid for unitary status was duly lodged by the County Council in January 2007.

Despite the proposal appearing to demonstrate widespread backing, with a broad cross-section of support across the public, private, and third sector in Cumbria, the bid faced outright opposition from all six District Councils and the cross-party group of six Cumbrian MPs. It was formally rejected by Government several months after its submission.

John Healey, the then Minister for Local Government reflected that the bid “had failed because the county was too geographically unique and diverse to be able to provide effective leadership from a single level of power”.

However, once the bottle had been opened, the genie of unitary status could never be returned.

Cumbria is the second largest and most rural county in England and one of the most sparsely populated, housing a resident population of approximately 500,000 in an area of approximately 2,613 square miles, a landmass equivalent to that of half of the North West of England.

The county of Cumbria was created in 1974 through a process of local government reorganisation that merged the former counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, the Cumberland County Borough of Carlisle, and the North Lonsdale or Furness part of Lancashire. But although Cumbria has only been in existence for 47 years, the component parts of the county have a long history and consequently a real sense of place, albeit at a relatively local level.

So, it is probably not surprising that when the councils in Cumbria received a formal invitation from Government last October to submit “locally led proposals for unitary government”, the six District Councils and the County Council between them submitted four different bids. By comparison, North Yorkshire and Somerset, which were also included in this round of Local Government Reform, produced two bids each. One of the Cumbria bids was for a single unitary authority and the other three were for two unitary authorities in a range of varied and interesting combinations.

  • The bid from the County Council involved a single unitary covering the whole of the county – ‘One Cumbria’ with continuing authority status for the County Council.
  • Allerdale and Copeland jointly proposed a two unitary ‘East-West’ model: ‘West Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Allerdale Borough, Carlisle City and Copeland Borough Councils and ‘East Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Barrow Borough, Eden District and South Lakeland District Councils.
  • Carlisle and Eden jointly proposed a two unitary ‘North-South’ model: ‘North Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Allerdale Borough, Carlisle City and Eden District Councils and ‘South Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Barrow Borough, Copeland Borough and South Lakeland District Councils.
  • Barrow, South Lakeland and Lancaster also jointly proposed a two unitary model: ‘The Bay’ comprising the area covered by Barrow Borough, South Lakeland District and Lancaster City Councils and ‘North Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Allerdale and Copeland Borough, Carlisle City and Eden District Councils.

A widespread consultation was undertaken in respect of all four proposals for a period of eight weeks. Unsurprisingly, the responses were apparently inconsistent, but very accurately reflected the wide range of views that exist countywide.

My personal preference was for the single unitary authority, despite the comments made previously by John Healey. I consider that this option would have provided the best outcome for residents. It offers the most compelling case for achieving economies of scale, maximising the reduction of duplication, reducing artificial boundaries and levels of bureaucracy, and delivering significant financial savings. Health in the county is currently organised in a different geographic way from other important public services such as the Police, Fire and Rescue, and social services. It is essential, therefore, that the future footprint for the local authority avoids increasing the complexity and challenges associated with the delivery of those key services.

So, despite the widespread level of political support expressed in favour of some form of local government reform in Cumbria over the last few years, the announcement by the Secretary of State on July 21st offering the county exactly that opportunity through his preferred East-West option, was greeted with a very mixed response. On reflection, the rationale for this apparently obtuse reaction is probably because, in reality, the extent of the consensus that existed was limited to support for the notion of reform.

But Cumbria is not alone. Although one of the latest in a series of major reorganisations across the country, it is notable that none of them have passed without the sort of tensions that we have experienced.

The timetable for the delivery of the actions needed within the county is extremely challenging; and a real risk to our not being able to maximise the opportunity the county has been given would be the inability to keep up with the required pace of change.

What is essential at this crucial time is strong, consistent, political leadership to drive our county forwards for the benefit of everyone. We need to use this time wisely to “build the houses we wish to live in”.