Cumbria's council uncertainty

Confusing two-tier system to be scrapped

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As the rest of the country goes to the polls on 6 May, Cumbria will not be holding local elections due to major changes to the county’s local government structure.

Cumbrians will only be able to vote for the Police and Crime Commissioner or if there is a by-election in their area as the government decides on the county’s future.

The government is considering proposals to end the two-tier system of local government in Cumbria, as well as in North Yorkshire and Somerset.

County councils run services such as social care and road maintenance, while borough councils have responsibility for areas such as housing and planning.

Ministers believe this is a cumbersome and bureaucratic system, and that moving to a single tier will improve services and generate savings.

Elsewhere in the country, reorganisation has been seen as a prelude to elected mayors and devolution deals, offering more powers to local areas.

The government has received four proposals from Cumbrian councils but even within political parties, there is disagreement over which would be best.

Stephen Haraldsen, deputy leader of the Conservative group on Cumbria County Council, personally backs a county-wide unitary authority to save money and increase coherence. But he admitted: “We don’t have an option that we support because there are a lot of differing opinions across the group.”

“Let’s get this settled. Let’s move on, let’s get more powers.”

He is strongly opposed to the Bay Unitary Authority plan that would take Lancaster in Lancashire and attach it to South Cumbria. But South Lakeland and Barrow do have strong ties to Lancashire. Barrow residents have Lancaster postcodes and receive different media than the rest of Cumbria.

Haraldsen said reorganisation for Cumbria was important and that having more devolved powers, in the manner of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, would be “transformational”.

He said: “Let’s get this settled. Let’s move on, let’s get more powers, let’s grab more money, let’s get cracking.”

Stewart Young, Labour leader of Cumbria County Council, supports a single unitary authority for the whole of Cumbria to “remove confusion that the public often has”, in turn creating more accountable local governance.

Under the current structure, said Young, constituents often do not know which tier of the system to contact when they have concerns.

He said: “It’s madness. The division of responsibilities is incomprehensible to most people.

“After Covid there are going to be further cuts to local government budgets, and I would rather save that money by being more efficient than further cuts to services, which have been cut for 10 years by this government.”

The county-wide proposal has encountered significant opposition from Eden, Copeland and Allerdale councillors, who fear Cumbria is too big to have only one authority. They are backing an option for two Cumbrian authorities, although the possible configurations vary.

Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, is considering the proposals now the consultation has ended. If he accepts one, the new structures could be operational by April 2023.

What could the changes look like? 

One council  
This proposal would see the current county council take over provision of all matters in Cumbria. This would mean that the county would oversee services such as bin collection and parking tickets that the six Cumbrian district councils had previously controlled, on top of its current remit. The proposal has been put forward by the county council.

Two councils (version 1) 
This would set up Bay Unitary Council, incorporating Barrow-in-Furness, South Lakeland and Lancaster. This would then result in the remaining four boroughs of Cumbria  – Carlisle, Allerdale, Eden and Copeland – joining together into a North Cumbria Unitary Authority. Barrow, South Lakeland and Lancaster councils have all chosen to go with this option.

Two councils (version 2) 
Barrow, South Lakeland and Copeland would merge to become a South Cumbria Unitary Council, leaving Carlisle, Eden, and Allerdale to merge in a North Cumbria alliance. There has been some opposition to splitting the boroughs of Copeland and Allerdale in West Cumbria due to their strong allegiance to one another. The option has been proposed by Eden and Carlisle Councils.

Two councils (version 3) 
This concept would see a West Cumbria Unitary Council, composed of Copeland, Carlisle, and Allerdale. East Cumbria would include Barrow, South Lakeland, and Eden. This is the option favoured by Allerdale and Copeland councils.

Photo: BAE Systems at Barrow, where the council supports the Bay Unitary proposal, joining up with Lancaster (Shutterstock)

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