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Unitaries urged to seize the moment

Conservative councillors will have little or no say in the way England and Wales' newest councils will operate. They will have only marginal control over the unitary authorities being created under the Local Government Review, writes Clare Dean.

Alongside the unmitigated disaster for the Conservative party of last week's local government elections, Labour has taken control nine of the 14 new unitary authorities in England, while the Liberal-Democrats will run one and the remainder are set to be hung councils.

In Wales, Labour will take control of 14 out of the 22 authorities, while four will be run by Independents and one by Plaid Cymru and three will have no party in overall control.

Many of the councils elected last week will have less than a year to get ready for their new role and the Audit Commission has now urged them to "seize the day".

In a report published this week, it says the new authorities have an unrepeatable opportunity for fresh thinking about tailoring services to meet the needs of local people.

And it warns: "Time will be short, even with goodwill and co-operation. In practice, such co-operation may be slow to build up. Members of different political cultures will need to work together. New authorities cannot afford a period of paralysis while members jockey for position."

Alongside last week's local government elections, voters were asked to select candidates for 784 seats in 14 English unitary authorities and 1,272 seats in 22 Welsh ones.

In the unitary elections, six districts were slimmed down to four and the county council was abolished in Avon. Voters were also asked to select four new councils in Cleveland, while parts of Harrogate, Ryedale, Selby and the city of York made up the new York authority, and in Humberside nine districts were cut down to four. While the effect has been to reduce the number of councils, it also means an increase in the number of LEAs - and a likely growth in administrative posts.

In England, Labour took Bristol, Hartlepool, Kingston-upon-Hull, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, North-east Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire and York. The Liberal Democrats gained control in the Isle of Wight while Bath and North-east Somerset, East Yorkshire and South Gloucestershire were hung.

In Wales, Labour took control of Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Newport, Bridgend, Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff, Flintshire, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Neath and Port Talbot, Rhondda, Cynon, Taff, Swansea, Torfaen and Wrexham. Independents gained Anglesey, Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire and Powys, while Aberconwy and Colwyn, Carmarthenshire and Denbighshire will be hung councils. Plaid Cymru took Caenarfonshire and Merionethshire.

The Audit Commission said councils should take the opportunity to make long-term improvements. And Andrew Foster, its Controller, said: "Councillors should grasp this chance to look at services from the perspective of those who use them, so they can tailor services to match their needs.

"Time is short if they are to make the most of this precious and unrepeatable opportunity."

The commission said new authorities needed to ask themselves three key questions - where to start, what must be done during the shadow period and how to improve services in the longer term.

It said they had to create their own vision, identify what needed to be done and work closely with the citizens they served.

And it warned: "The tasks facing new authorities are daunting. Financial constraints are likely to increase rather than decrease; some opposition to change, from staff and public, is inevitable; and the Government's own agenda for change is formidable.

"Local government must meet these changes and design services for the new millennium.

"Structural change should be seen as presenting the opportunity for a new beginning, rather than as end in itself."

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