THE gloves came off this week in the battle for control of Cheshire's local authorities.
At stake is who will decide how to spend £800m each year on schools, care for the elderly, children's services, roads, environment, business development, the city, towns and villages.
A 12-week consultation with stakeholders - not a full public consultation - begins this week to get the new councils set up by 2009.
A jubilant Chester City council are already celebrating in the belief they have won the argument to scrap the county council and merge six district councils into two, East and West Cheshire.
But Cheshire's chief executive Jeremy Taylor has warned the county council could seek a judicial review if the Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, splits the county in two.
He said that would contradict the assessment of her own Department for Communities and Local Government which gave the county's plan to scrap the six district councils, creating one single-tier authority a 'nine out of 10' on the likelihood of achieving the agreed criteria, compared to the city's 'seven out of 10'.
But Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion, Phil Woolas, may have given an indication about they way he believes the decision will go when he said he believed the county's plan appeared to lack public support.
West Cheshire would comprise Chester, Ellesmere Port and Vale Royal councils. With its central location, Chester would be the likely choice for the HQ.
Chester City Council chief executive Paul Durham said: 'Our proposals are centred on improving things for residents by making a fresh start. They save taxpayers money, even after paying for the cost of change; they reflect best practice and are deliverable.'
He argued the county's proposal was 'unworkable' and Cheshire was 'too large' for one local authority.
County chief Mr Taylor points out his organisation already has the skills and experience to operate a budget of £700m compared to the six councils' combined budget of about £100m, and is facing up to key issues like dwindling numbers in schools.
Who will get the job? >>>
WHO WILL GET THE TOP JOB?
JEREMY TAYLOR has been chief executive of Cheshire County Council for the past four-and-a-half years but has worked for the authority for 28 years.
During his time with the council he has been director of personnel, the policy unit and community development and had overall responsibility for the authority's response to the foot-and-mouth and petrol blockade crises.
A graduate of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Mr Taylor, lives in Chester. His wife Rachel is a senior education officer with the county council and his daughter Annabel is a solicitor.
Before joining the county council in 1979, he had worked as a personnel manager with ICI and senior university lecturer in management and education. His interests include fell walking, classical music, theatre and gardening.
The first thing he does when he gets home is to get changed into jeans and casual gear and feed the cats. He lists his main strength as tenacity and his weakness as: 'Don't suffer fools gladly'.
PAUL DURHAM has been chief executive of Chester City Council for 18 years.
Before joining the city council, he worked for three metropolitan authorities where he witnessed the benefits of unitary local government from his experience as a senior manager.
He lives in Great Boughton, Chester, with his wife and has two sons who were both educated in the district.
Paul has also lived in Wilmslow, East Cheshire and understands from experience that the east and west of the county have very different characteristics and needs.
One of Paul's proudest moments as chief executive of the city council was seeing the authority achieve and retain 'excellent' status in the Audit Commission's performance ratings.
Paul is also extremely pleased with how the district has progressed over the years.
Unemployment has reduced dramatically, Chester's profile locally, nationally and internationally has been raised and the council, along with its partners, has lined up some major regeneration programmes which will deliver much needed improvements to important areas of the district.
STEPHEN EWBANK, Ellesmere Port & Neston Borough Council chief executive, took up the role in 1984.
He was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School (1956-1962) then studied for a Law degree at St Andrews University, obtaining a distinction in Scots Law (1962-1965).
After university he served articles of clerkship with the Town Clerk of the City of Lancaster, his hometown.
In 1968 he qualified as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court, working in Kidderminster in Worcestershire.
In 1977 he became Director of Legal and Administrative Services for Wyre Forest District Council where he remained until 1984.
For 23 years he has taken a special interest in regeneration.
He is married to Jane and has three grown up daughters. His interests include all types of sport.
ANNE BINGHAM-HOLMES joined Vale Royal Borough Council as chief executive in September 2000, having previously been Director of Community Services for Northampton Borough Council.
Throughout a long career in local government, Anne has worked for South Yorkshire County Council, Sheffield City Council and Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council.
What the major players have to say >>>
WHAT THE MAJOR PLAYERS HAVE TO SAY
* Cheshire Chief Executive Jeremy Taylor welcomed the Secretary of State's decision to allow its submission for a single unitary council to go forward for consultation.
He stressed it was now vital stakeholders received all the information required to enable them to make an informed and evidence-based decision on the two submissions.
He said: 'The Government has now given us the opportunity to test the validity of our case, which we believe champions the best interests of everyone in Cheshire.'
* City council leader Cllr Paul Roberts (Lib Dem, Farndon) said: 'I think it's encouraging news that the Chester bid for dividing Cheshire into two unitaries - east and west - is going out to consultation by the government.
'There are a lot of benefits to unitary councils. They eliminate confusion as to who does what. This morning I had a phone call from someone livid about potholes and what was I going to do about it. I was trying to explain to him that's not our function and that I could ask highways to do something about it but I had no control over it.'
* Paul Durham, Chester City Council's chief executive, argued the county's proposal was 'unworkable', saying Cheshire was 'far too large' for one local authority.
He said: 'Our proposals are centred on improving things for residents by making a fresh start. They save taxpayers' money, even after paying for the costs of change; they reflect best practice and are deliverable.
'We look forward to working with our partners in local government to deliver this exciting new vision for local government in Cheshire.'
* Chester MP Christine Russell, who is backing the Chester and West Cheshire Council option, said: 'Discussions I have had with constituents over the years have led me to conclude there is genuine confusion among Council Tax-payers about which authority is responsible for which service and that cannot be a good thing.'
* Chester Conservatives have vowed to fight plans to scrap Chester City Council and are annoyed the public won't be consulted.
Tory city council deputy group leader Cllr Stephen Mosley (Handbridge & St Mary's) said: 'I am shocked that the Government has only decided to consult 'stakeholders', which means the councils and public-sector bodies, instead of launching a full public consultation.
'I am sure that if real people were asked they would vote overwhelmingly against these plans.'
* Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council leader Cllr Reg Chrimes ideally wanted Cheshire split into three.
He said: 'Although our preferred option has not been shortlisted, we are pleased that our second choice of two unitary authorities covering east and west Cheshire has gone forward for consultation. All parties in our borough are committed to unitary local government.'
* Tory-controlled Vale Royal Borough Council did not make a submission but is backing the two-council solution.
Vale Royal chief executive Anne Bingham-Holmes said: 'This is our preferred option of those put forward, and we are pleased that it has made it to the consultation stage.'
* Sir Jeremy Beecham, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, said: 'There is no one right way to organise local government.
'Unitary councils work well in some areas, separate district and county councils in others.
'What matters is that local people in every area get a system of local government that meets their needs and wishes.'
PAVEMENTS are kept clean by the district councils and Cheshire County Council looks after the road.
Domestic rubbish is collected by a district council but then buried in the ground by the county.
These are just two examples of the confusing and costly way in which local government is organised in counties like Cheshire.
So to make life simpler and cheaper for Council Tax-payers, the Government is going ahead with plans to create single councils which run virtually everything.
At the moment the county is responsible for education, strategic planning, transport planning, passenger transport, highways, fire, social services, libraries and waste disposal.
Districts have a housing role too; they determine planning applications, run leisure and recreation facilities, collect waste, run an environmental heath department and collect Council Tax and business rates.
ONE or two councils for Cheshire? That is the question which must be determined by Secretary of State Ruth Kelly, who has confirmed the status quo is not an option.
Whatever happens, it will mean upheaval for thousands of staff across all Cheshire authorities.
* Cheshire County Council has submitted a one council option to run all services across Cheshire, with about 300 jobs moving from Chester to new headquarters in Mid Cheshire.
It is claimed the plan would save Council Tax-payers £21m a year.
The document recommends new councils for Chester and the towns of Crewe, Macclesfield, Ellesmere Port and Wilmslow to ensure local accountability.
* Chester City and Ellesmere Port & Neston Council submitted a bid for creating two new unitary councils in Cheshire, which is supported by Vale Royal.
One is for West Cheshire - merging Chester, Ellesmere Port & Neston and Vale Royal - and the other is for East Cheshire - consisting of Crewe & Nantwich, Macclesfield and Congleton.
Supporters say two councils would split Cheshire into two roughly equally sized populations, with 352,000 in the east and 322,000 in the west.
OVER the next 12 weeks, the Government is consulting key stakeholders - but not the public - over the proposals for local government.
However, Government spokesman Joshua Coe said it was an 'open consultation' and members of the public are encouraged to get in touch.
The decision will be taken in July, with the structure coming into place in April 2009.
Key stakeholders include the Arts Council England, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Audit Commission, English Heritage Chambers of Commerce, NHS health trusts and universities and colleges.
Members of the public can send comments, no later than June 22, to: Communities and Local Government, Zone 5/E8, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London, SW1E 5DU or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
* Cheshire County Council employs 23,000 people, has 51 councillors and a budget of about £713m
* Chester City Council employs 750 with 60 councillors and a budget of £17m. n Ellesmere Port and Neston employs 750 employees with 43 councillors in charge of a £12m budget
* Vale Royal employs 650 with 57 councillors and has a budget of £15.7m.
What do you think of the proposals? Are you happy with the manner of the consultation? Telephone: 01244 606424/5 Fax: 01244 606498 E-mail: email@example.com