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Judicial review of government plan to create two unitary councils in Cumbria delayed by call-in

Cumbria County Council's judicial review bid of the secretary of state's decision to reorganise local government in the county has been delayed following a call-in from the local authority's scrutiny committee.

In July this year, The secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government - now titled the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - announced the selection of a proposal for two unitary councils for Cumbria. The plan chosen by the then Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, will create an East unitary council covering the existing areas of Barrow, Eden and South Lakeland and a West unitary council covering the existing areas of Allerdale, Carlisle and Copeland.

A month later, Cumbria's cabinet, which supported the creation of a single unitary covering the whole county, responded to the plan by issuing a claim for judicial review against the Secretary of State's decision.

The full council had previously called a special meeting to discuss the cabinet's intended legal challenge and resolved that it would be a "waste of public money and time". Instead, councillors said the council should focus on serving local residents by working with all partners to ensure a smooth transition to the new unitary authorities.

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In September, three members of the local authority's Scrutiny Management Board - councillors Chris Whiteside, Arthur Lamb and Ben Shirley - launched a 'call in' of the decision. The trio advanced the following six grounds:

  1. Lack of Transparency and Openness.
  2. Because of the open-ended nature of the potential costs involved and complete lack of information provided about them, there is a need for call-in to scrutinise whether this decision is within the budget and policy framework.
  3. The secrecy surrounding this decision and the reasons for it is in breach of the UN convention on Human Rights requirements on access to information.
  4. The resources and potential cost involved are not proportionate to the likelihood, or lack of it, of achieving any change.
  5. Access to information and advice: the entire discussion of the item was held in part II and not even a summary of the advice given was provided to the leadership of the opposition group went against the principle that members should have equal access to information.
  6. Because this decision explicitly goes against a specific view taken by the full council itself, all members can reasonably expect a full explanation of the reasons for this decision and for that decision to be subject to particular scrutiny.

The call-in meeting is scheduled for 11 October 2021.

Cumbria has until 20 October 2021 to file its proceedings.

Adam Carey

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