The county council of Cumbria ceases to exist on 31 March this year, almost 50 years after it was created out of the two historic counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, together with Lancashire North of the Sands and parts of the old West Riding of Yorkshire.
Unsurprisingly, the process of unravelling the local government reforms of the Ted Heath-led Conservative government back in 1974 has not gone without controversy.
Whether council taxpayers appreciate the benefits of going back to the future remains to be seen, but the battles won’t end with the creation of the two new councils replacing Cumbria County and the six districts within it.
Already there are rumblings about whether the two new unitary authorities of Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness should have a joint Mayor.
Ironically, the same government which has forced Cumbria to split in two, now wants the two halves to work together.
Up to that fateful day, 1 April 1974, Cumberland delivered all local government in the north and west of what became Cumbria. Westmorland ruled the south and east of the land block in the farthest north-western corner of England. Broughton to Grange, was part of Lancashire. Sedbergh and Dent in the Dales had been part of the West Riding of Yorkshire.
The old single-tier system matched local historical alliances and reflected the landscape, either side of England’s highest mountain range.
The creation of Cumbria in 1974 was as unpopular then as the new set-up is now.
As well as Cumbria County Council, six new district councils were created, each with their own responsibilities and management teams: Carlisle, Allerdale, Copeland, Barrow, South Lakeland and Eden.
The new two-tier system was seen as confusing, with the public uncertain which council provided which service. But as the decades went by, the term Cumbria became embedded in the national consciousness.
Mixed response to consultation
Then in 2020, the government, buoyed by their success in the December 2019 election, wrote to the local authorities demanding they look at ways of returning to unitary bodies.
When the six districts delivered the results of their consultation and deliberations, they all backed a return to two unitary authorities.
Carlisle and Eden (based in Penrith) wanted to join Allerdale, in a north-south split, recreating the old Cumberland. Allerdale, covering Workington to Keswick, and Copeland, based on Whitehaven, wanted to merge with Carlisle, leaving Eden to join South Lakeland and Barrow for an east-west split. Most radically of all Barrow and South Lakeland wanted to join Lancaster, not in Cumbria at all, to create a Morecambe Bay Council.
These three district councils engaged consultants to argue their case, which appeared to be well supported. A survey of 3,000 residents came up with 85% support for The Bay.
Towns and parish councils were also consulted. 110 councillors were for The Bay, eight against with seven abstentions. Its footprint exactly matched the local health authority, also called Morecambe Bay.
Meanwhile Cumbria County Council told Housing, Communities and Local Government minister Robert Jenrick it wanted to survive as the lone unitary authority. Legal challenges, costing £80,000, ended with the High Court refusing a review.
Jenrick had said any restructuring of local government must be locally led and would not involve top-down solutions from government. But with four different visions being promoted locally, which one would he choose?
It was the Allerdale and Copeland vision that found favour with the government, including their suggestion that there be a combined authority (made up of the leadership of each unitary), led by a directly elected mayor for Cumbria.
The resulting Westmorland and Furness council would now include Eden District, meaning a strange Amazon-smile shaped authority, the third biggest in England, stretching 72 miles from Walney Island, off Barrow, to Alston, high in the Pennines, two hours’ drive even on a good day.
Vast swathes of the old Cumberland, east of Morland, were told they would be part of Westmorland.
Then, when the shadow authority elections were held in 2022, the Conservative plans seemed to unravel. The new Cumberland was won emphatically by Labour. Westmorland and Furness is destined to be staunchly Lib-Dem.
It is difficult to see how the reorganisation has saved money. Barrow which had a borough district council, has now had to embark on creating a new parish.
The old town halls in Barrow, Penrith and Kendal are to be kept and will be used for localised planning meetings, seen as important to ensure accessible democracy.
No-one employed by the old councils is being made redundant. Instead, they are being transferred to the new authorities, under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) legislation.
In some senior positions there will even have to be an increase in staff. There will have to be two directors of statutory duties like head of children’s services, instead of one, for instance. Insiders estimate it will take up to two years before staff levels are finalised.
“All staff from the seven councils will transfer under TUPE regulations to one of the new authorities on their current pay and conditions on 1 April.
“After that date the new councils will begin a period of transition and transformation to ensure they realise the benefits of being unitary authorities. This will include decisions about service delivery and staffing.”Cumbria County Council spokesperson response
There will be a cut in the number of councillors: the total number of councillors across current district and county councils is 341. There will be 111 councillors across the two new councils (46 for Cumberland, 65 for Westmorland and Furness).
But despite some people’s perceptions, attendance and travel allowances for members makes up a tiny proportion of council costs.
Both new councils propose a 4.99% rise in council tax for 2023/24. This is made up of a 2.99% basic increase plus another 2% specifically to help fund adult social care, known as the Adult Social Care Precept.
The figure is the maximum they could charge under current legislation without holding a local referendum. It is also proposed that council tax rates should be harmonised across the new council areas.
But these figures don’t include the fire precept, which is separate and could take the overall rise in the bill to the ratepayers over the 5% mark.
Even so, with inflation running at near 11% and several national disputes over pay-claims for swathes of local government employees, like teachers and fire-fighters, the new councils are clearly not going to be awash with cash.
And then there is the question of who runs the fire brigade, formerly the province of the county council. It has been handed to the Police and Crime Commissioner Peter McCall, a Conservative. He will run the two organisations to remain Cumbria-wide: police and fire. So, if the London and Manchester models are followed, he would be the obvious candidate for mayor.
He has already appointed his first ever deputy: Mike Johnson, the outgoing Conservative leader of Allerdale council, which proposed the idea of a joint Mayor in the first place. Under the rules of the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner, the appointment of a deputy was not subject to open recruitment and permitted McCall to make a political appointment, according to the minutes which went to the panel which sanctioned the decision.
But the new councils are in no hurry to pursue this particular part of the Government plan. It appears nowhere in the stated aims of Westmorland and Furness Council aims and objectives for its 225,000 residents. The new leader of Cumberland Council, Mark Fryer has said “it could be three or four years before formal talks start on a devolution deal for Cumbria and the priority is setting up the new authorities.”
The lack of progress on a joint Mayor is upsetting the local Conservative MPs. John Stevenson MP for Carlisle, claims having a Mayor would enable the awarding of millions of pounds of additional funding and further powers, in areas like transport, to the new counties. Fellow Tory Mark Jenkinson, MP for Workington, has written to both leaders on the same subject.
So, if the creation of Cumbria was a shotgun marriage of Westmorland and Cumberland in 1974, the latest reorganisation is beginning to look like an acrimonious and messy divorce 49 years later. And with the questions of the appointment of a mayor and combined authority unresolved as the divorce becomes absolute, the disputes are likely to rumble on.
It is to be hoped the fact the new authorities take effect on April Fools’ Day is not an omen of what is to come.