FIVE years ago today (Tuesday, April 1), the biggest local government shake-up in a generation saw County Durham’s two-tier setup swept away, replaced by the unitary Durham County Council. In a special report, Mark Tallentire assesses its success.

CAST your mind back to April 1, 2009. Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, the Americans and Russians – seemingly the best of friends – were holding arms reduction talks and Alan Shearer was appointed Newcastle United manager.

Meanwhile, in County Durham, a quiet revolution took place.

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The two-tier council structure of districts and county which had served for generations disappeared, replaced by a new “super authority” – the unitary Durham County Council (DCC).

It employed 22,000 staff, had an annual budget of £1.2bn and, addressing a packed County Hall, its new leader Simon Henig spoke of high ambitions to “not just maintain, but improve services, from Barnard Castle to Blackhall, from Consett to Coxhoe”.

The Northern Echo:

Supporters said moving to a single, all-purpose council would save £21m a year, cut council tax bills and end decades of confusion, while critics claimed the switch would be costly and the new authority too big and too remote.

Looking back, those arguments – fiercely fought as they were – seem like small beer, given the economic crisis and austerity measures which have followed.

It would be unfair to judge DCC by the standards of 2009 when, as Councillor Henig puts it, “the whole game has changed”.

“We didn’t think the economy was going to fall off a cliff in 2009 and public services would be hit year after year,” he says.

Local government has been hard hit by the Coalition spending squeeze, losing around 40 per cent of its funding.

In County Durham, care homes and leisure centres have closed, bin collections have become fortnightly and home-to-school transport and library opening hours have been cut.

But, Coun Henig insists: “I think we’ve been successful, but in different terms than we anticipated.”

To support that claim, he points to Durham’s 2013 Year of Culture, which saw the county host its first Ashes Test, the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Lumiere light festival and much more, together attracting 500,000 visitors.

Elsewhere, there have been economic success stories. Hitachi is building a train assembly plant in Newton Aycliffe, creating 730 jobs; a £27m office development is springing up on Durham’s old ice rink site; Spennymoor is benefitting from the £150m Durham Gate scheme for homes and businesses; and Seaham Harbour Marina has been transformed.

Last month, DCC was named the best council in the country at the Local Government Chronicle Awards.

But, nevertheless, critics remain.

Liberal Democrat leader Amanda Hopgood says DCC is the most undemocratic council in the country; with only the ten-member Labour cabinet wielding any real power, local knowledge ignored on planning matters and County Hall dominating the agenda of the 14 Area Action Partnerships’ (AAPs).

Tory leader Richard Bell defends the AAPs and says he sees “pockets of excellence” across DCC, but argues County Hall is too remote and services are still uneven across the county.

Independent John Shuttleworth, who supported 2009’s reorganisation, now wishes it had never happened, saying DCC is the worst it’s been in 25 years.

Looking ahead, all agree that austerity will continue for some years yet.

Coun Hopgood feels there is still room for further savings; but Coun Bell, turning on his own ministers, argues for a “fairer and more sustainable model for financing local government”.

Of course, predicting the future is a tricky business.

It remains unclear how much sway the new North-East “combined authority” – which will pool powers over transport, skills and economic development across seven councils and more than a million people from the River Tees to the Scottish border – will hold; and much will swing on the outcome of next year’s General Election.

But it seems inevitable that DCC will do less and, if communities want services to continue, they will have to run them themselves.

“Maybe there was a paternalistic attitude in the past,” Coun Henig says, adding, revealingly: “The more community groups can take on for themselves, the better.”