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Island blazes the trail for new unitaries

At midnight on Friday 60 councillors on the Isle of Wight lost their seats - booted out not by the electorate but by local government reform.

For on April 1, the Isle of Wight became a unitary authority - the first in the Government's grand overhaul of local authorities.

Its two borough councils merged with the county council to form the new Isle of Wight Council and while jobs within the authority have been sorted out (albeit with some controversy) its political complexion remains a mystery.

For like the metropolitan districts and the other counties which are to be broken up, the island goes to the polls on May 4. On that day 12,081 seats will be contested in England and Wales.

A third of the seats will be up for grabs in 143 English metropolitan districts with all seats contested in a further 167.

There will also be elections for 784 seats in 14 English shadow unitary authorities and for 1,273 seats in 22 Welsh shadow unitary councils.

With the turn-out for local elections traditionally low, the electorate this year could almost be forgiven for staying away.

It will be a complicated business as a spokesman at the Council of Welsh Districts acknowledged: "There'll be elections throughout Wales but whether people will know what they are voting for, who knows?".

The elections will be a critical test for the Conservative party. With intense unhappiness over cuts to school budgets and the Government in the deepest mid-term slump of any governing party, there are predictions that the Conservatives could lose more than 1,000 seats.

Of the urban councils, the Conservatives only have overall control in Trafford, although there are Tory administrations in Calderdale and Solihull.

The Liberal Democrats, who are focusing on national discontent with Conservative policies and particularly their impact on schools, expect to make gains at the expense of Labour in the North-west.

As well as increasing their influence in Liverpool, where they effectively run the administration, the Liberal Democrats could take control of Oldham. The councils in Sefton and the Wirral are already hung and Labour is at risk of losing overall control in Bury.

In the elections to the shadow unitaries, six districts will be slimmed down to four and the county council abolished in Avon. Voters will select four new councils in Cleveland while parts of Harrogate, Ryedale, Selby and the city of York will make up a new York authority and in Humberside nine districts will be cut down to four.

Competition for seats will be fierce. In the Isle of Wight, for example, the 43 county and 60 borough council seats from the now defunct Medina and South Wight authorities will be condensed into just 48 unitary positions.

Both the county and South Wight were Liberal-Democrat controlled while the Tories ran Medina.

Michael Fletcher, former leader of Medina and a county councillor, said: "Many of my Medina colleagues will be putting up for the unitary authority. They will be more than happy to take their chance with the voters.

"I think that overall a unitary authority will be less confusing as far as the general public is concerned over which council provides which service on a very small island.

"The problem with being separated from the mainland though is that the island is rather introspective and having a council of a different political complexion has provided competition and spark which may die."

The allocation of jobs within the new authority has already been a subject of contention with the former Medina hierarchy. None of its chief officers were appointed to any of the 10 top jobs.

Six senior officials within the county council - its chief executive, surveyor, treasurer, planner, personnel and education officer - have also either left or retired.

Dr John Williams, its CEO who chaired a Society of Education Officers group which monitored the local government review, was among the chief officers to leave.

He is now education director in Sunderland and his replacement from next month will be Alan Kaye, an assistant chief education officer in Oxfordshire.

While still CEO for the Isle of Wight, Dr Williams predicted: "New local authorities will have a difficult time coming to terms with their roles. They will have to get up and running within 11 months.

"In some ways the most hairy thing in the short term is that the incoming authority has to have its own LMS scheme. It'll have to draw up the scheme, make the sums add up, and consult schools on it."

The island is fortunate. It does not have that particular problem to contend with as the county is, in effect, the continuing authority. It remains to be seen what happens in areas where the LEA is broken into smaller pieces.

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