As part of structural changes in local government, Northumberland County Council became a unitary authority in 2009.
Northumberland was previously governed by one county council alongside six district councils. A formal referendum earlier in the decade saw residents voting to replace this two-tier structure with two unitary authorities for the county, rather than one single authority.
Government consultation with the district councils also reflected in favour of two authorities, one for the rural centres of Alnwick, Berwick, Tynedale and Castle Morpeth, and the other for the urban areas of Wansbeck and Blyth Valley.
However, ignoring the democratically expressed voice of the electorate, Labour leaders at the county council submitted a proposal for a single unitary authority and the Labour UK Government chose this option.
In September 2014, Hexham Conservative MP Guy Opperman issued a renewed call for separate urban and rural authorities in the face of the ongoing row over county council plans to move its base from Morpeth to Ashington and decentralise services. He also pointed out that while population density was greater in the south east areas of the county, the population number in the rural west (27 per cent) and north (26 per cent) taken together is greater than in the urban south east (47 per cent).
However, is the desire of the majority of the people of Northumberland as to how they should be governed any more likely to be listened to by the Conservative Government?
About the same time as the vote took place on Northumberland’s government structure, the North East electorate overwhelmingly rejected an elected regional assembly: 78 per cent of votes cast against devolution, with only 22 per cent in favour.
Yet Labour councillors, politicians and union leaders continue to call for a regional government. The Conservative Government has now approved direct elections in 2017 for a Mayor for the North East, purportedly to have power over policies such as transport, strategic planning and employment.
It is clear that a unitary council for Northumberland, if it does not actually guarantee perpetual Labour control of the county, at least determines that a very small area disproportionately exerts power and cultural influence over the vastly greater part of it. Once the county seat is moved from Morpeth to Ashington, both are likely to become entrenched.
The Morpeth Herald of November 19 contained excellent articles by Andrew Coulson demonstrating the highly spurious nature of the relocation proposal, yet it is very likely that this will go ahead, despite many articles, reports, representations and efforts by county councillor Peter Jackson, Guy Opperman, and countless others all demonstrating the absurdity of the proposal.
Are the majority of the people of Northumberland once again going to see their views dismissed? Why at least can Northumberland County Council not put the issue of moving its HQ to a referendum?
Are the Conservatives going to slide on this issue as they have done with that of the Regional Mayor, which will metamorphose into another sizeable, expensive and tax-consuming body offering little or no benefit to the people of the region.
Labour controls Northumberland Council, but it does not have a clear majority, holding only 32 of the 67 council wards. There are only 21 Conservative councillors, but there are ten Liberal Democrats, two Independent and two non-aligned. Of the 14 that are neither Labour nor Conservative, only two represent wards that are not within the rural west or north. Further, a number of Labour councillors represent wards in the rural area.
Can councillors break free of the Cabinet-style government whereby seven councillors of the Labour majority make decisions that impact upon the lives of the 316,000 or so people who live in this county?
There is hardly a more important issue for the future of Northumberland and it is time for all councillors and the people of Northumberland to step up to the plate and stop this irreversible and disastrous change to their county.
Dr Keith White-Hunt