THE battle for the future of Cheshire’s county and district councils has taken an astonishing twist.
Former County Hall leaders from across the political spectrum have come together to back the formidable figure of Crewe Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody.
The firebrand MP has launched a campaign against White Paper proposals to split the county.
She argues a Cheshire county region could provide its own first class services and would have the strategic clout capable of representing its 680,000 people regionally and nationally.
With the county council already responsible for over 80% of local government services in Cheshire, the region would build on its independent four star rating.
‘Cheshire is a natural county region,’ argued Mrs Dunwoody. `Its history, economy and political make-up demonstrate that this is not a suburb of city regions but a vibrant exciting and developing place.
`We are in the vanguard of structured and exciting change.
`To reverse suddenly our positions would be unacceptable, short-sighted and unsustainable.’
She has been `backed to the hilt’ by ex Labour, Tory and Lib Dem leaders who spent much of their long political careers savaging each other’s policies across the council chamber at County Hall.
`Gwyneth has never lacked the courage of her convictions and I admire the way that she has spoken out on behalf of the people.
`I’m with her all the way,’ said former Tory leader Simon Cussons.
`Our council taxpayers are still forking out £70 a head for the last tampering with the boundaries of this county in 1997 because the split left New Cheshire with more of the responsibilities and less of the cash.’
Mr Cussons said he could not see any merit whatsoever in effectively moving half of the county into Manchester and Salford and the other half into Liverpool.
`The minister may see this as an extension of the city region policy but Cheshire, in its present state, is a powerful region in its own right and should be regarded as such,’ he insisted.
The first ever Labour leader at County Hall, Basil Jeuda, commented:`It seems to me that the very serious effect on Cheshire’s services which would result from such a split has been seriously understated.
`That is not good for the people of Cheshire who have been used to receiving first class services for a very long time from an authority with huge experience in delivering well on a strategic basis.’
He added: `I am also extremely concerned about the loss of specialist and strategic experience that would follow such a split, simply because two smaller authorities would not be able to afford such expertise.
`Only recently the director of children’s services, Joan Feenan, warned that the most vulnerable children in the county would suffer for the same reason.
`We cannot afford to ignore warnings of this sort.’
Outspoken former Tory leader Ken Maynard said Mrs Dunwoody had `hit the nail squarely on the head.’
`A county region ticks all the boxes both for Cheshire and for the Government,’ he suggested.
`The split recommendation is baffling.
`For one thing, four out of seven councils in Cheshire oppose it and for another it did not meet the affordability criteria.
`How on earth can you set strict criteria and then say ‘You met all the criteria but we are minded to go with the risky option?
`If it is not broken and working well don’t try to mend it.’
A former Liberal Democrat leader, David Lloyd-Griffiths, warned of the `grave consequences’ of underestimating the disruption and costs involved in dividing long-established county services.
`The suggestion that we should ignore the authority already effectively delivering over 80% of the services and entrusting them to the control of those responsible for the remainder is mind-boggling.
`There is no groundswell of opinion in Cheshire that wants to break up these services or the county council apart from those with a vested interest in doing so.’
He added:`Apparently, along the way they are somehow going to reduce costs by creating two councils instead of one, whilst simultaneously duplicating senior levels of management - pure magic!’