Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Wednesday, 1 April 2009 09:21 UK

Cheshire enters new council era

By Arif Ansari
BBC North West Political Editor

County Hall, Chester
Council tax will be harmonised across the two areas

One hundred and twenty years is a long time for anyone in politics, so perhaps it is only fair that Cheshire County Council should now pass into retirement.

Also saying goodbye are six district councils: Congleton, Macclesfield, Crewe and Nantwich, Ellesmere Port and Neston, Vale Royal and Chester City.

Previously, services were provided by the county and districts.

Now, two new councils have been created which will take responsibility for all services in their region.

They are Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East.

"Endless confusion"

Reg Chrimes suspects he might have been England's longest serving councillor.

He was first elected in 1949 to Neston Urban district council and retired from Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council in 2007 after 58 years of service.

So he knows something about local government in Cheshire and firmly believes that the new system will be better.

He said: "There were always disputes... even the simplest things when people wanted to know why their pavements were not being repaired.

"They thought the local council was dealing with it. It wasn't, the county was.

Democracy is severely under threat
Professor Michael Chisholm

"So it caused endless confusion."

So who provides services should be clearer. But will they improve?

Well that is certainly the plan.

Councillor Mike Jones, who's leading Cheshire West and Chester says: "I'm going to ensure people get a better service.

"Most people tell us what they want is value for money. They want to see things getting done, they want to see improvement.

"And if they see that and they're still paying the same council tax then I think we're achieving a lot."

Cost questions

And then there is the question of cost.

Re-spraying vehicles, moving desks and paying out for redundancies is expensive.

The leader of Cheshire East, Wesley Fitzgerald, told me it is going to cost £16m.

For Cheshire West and Chester a total of £30m is looking likely.

Cheshire East sign
The new authorities came into effect on 1 April

That is substantially higher than the original estimate.

But both councils are driving through efficiencies, mainly by cutting jobs.

Cheshire West has already shed 200 managers and more staff are expected to go in September.

Once the transition costs are paid back, the savings should start clocking up.

Ultimately that could mean lower council tax though that remains "an aspiration".

Democracy 'under threat'

But if you want to discuss all this with your councillor, well that might be a bit more tricky.

The number of councillors is dropping from 375 to 153.

Critics fear this will result in a "democratic deficit", in other words less consultation with people, and local government becoming more remote.

Professor Michael Chisholm, co-author of Botched Business which analysed the reforms, said: "Democracy is severely under threat.

"If you reduce the number of councillors by half, it's very difficult to see how they can relate to the electorate in the way that's currently possible."

But the councils are aware of that danger and promise Area Partnership Boards which will be more locally focused.

So fewer councillors but with bigger ears. It will be interesting to know what they hear from council tax payers as these changes take effect.

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