Win over public before shake-up, councils urged

With 100 days to go until the biggest shake-up of English local authorities in 30 years, new councils were today urged to get the public on board before their creation on 1 April.

Seven counties across England will be affected by the 2009 local government reforms, which ministers believe will deliver more than £100 million in savings as well as improving services and giving local people more say.

Some 44 district, borough and county councils in Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire will be replaced by nine new unitary authorities serving 3.2 million people. The changes mean that 60 per cent of the population will be served by single-tier unitary councils, rather than the old two-tier system.

Local government minister John Healey today said he was "impressed" by the preparations in place to ensure the new councils hit the ground running, but warned that more needs to be done to explain the changes to the public.

"This isn't a bureaucratic process of redrawing maps or changing names, and it's not a 24-hour makeover," said Mr Healey.

"This is about making a real difference to people's lives. These new councils have committed to delivering better services, giving people a bigger say in decisions that affect them and making combined savings of over £100 million to be re-invested in frontline services or used to reduce pressure on council tax.

"And through stronger leadership they will help their communities ride out these tough economic times.

"From my visits to all of these areas, I have seen first-hand the huge efforts being made to ensure councils are not only up and running but also delivering top-quality services from day one.

"The final countdown begins today but I am confident plans are on track and efforts will continue over the next 100 days. I want these councils to also use this time to step up efforts to tell local people about the changes and how they will benefit.

"Whether a single telephone number to access all services in Wiltshire or free swimming for children and old people in Shropshire, I want local people to know what to expect from their new council from day one."

Among the changes being offered by the new authorities are a network of one-stop shops for any council service in Cornwall; new debt advice for people affected by the economic downturn in Cheshire East; more flexible social housing in Northumberland; and united leisure, library and sports coaching facilities in Central Bedfordshire.