PEOPLE are being misled over the level of grassroots support for controversial plans to create a unitary authority in County Durham, it was claimed last night.

Durham County Council has submitted plans to abolish the seven district councils and replace them with a single authority.

But last night, a professor from County Durham claimed the county council was misleading the public and Government over the amount of support it had.

Professor Jef Robinson, from Chester-le-Street, has analysed the 180-page report submitted to the Government.

It says there is public support for the unitary plan - however, the county council's own research shows that more people would prefer to keep the current two-tier system than switch to a unitary model by a majority of 55 to 44 per cent majority.

Prof Robinson, awarded his professor title by Sheffield University, said the council had manipulated the facts.

However, the county council has hit back insisting it had not - and adding that it had been "transparent" by including all source information.

It commissioned an independent telephone poll of County Durham residents at the end of November 2006. A thousand people were asked which style council they would like.

* 26.6 per cent wanted a single county-wide council;

* 17 per cent wanted to split the county into two parts, each with its own council;

* 27.5 per cent wanted to retain the two-tier structure of county and district councils without change;

* 27.4 per cent wanted or retain the two-tier structure, with improvements;

* 1.5 per cent did not know.

The full survey results are published on page 138 of the report.

However, on page seven of its report the county council states that: "Creating one unitary council reflects the public's preferences on how local government should change."

Its report also says: "Forty-four per cent of respondents favoured unitary options, compared with 27 per cent of respondents who favoured building on a continuing two-tier structure."

However, Prof Robinson said the council has ignored the 27 per cent of people who would prefer to retain the current system.

Last night, the county council said the Government was only considering two options - unitary council or "pathfinder" plan based on improvements to the two-tier system.

Deputy chief executive Chris Tunstall said: "It was entirely appropriate for our submission to group related sections of the statistics in the context of the debate (ie those in favour of unitary government versus those in favour of better two-tier working).

"At least Prof Robinson had an opportunity to read our submission in depth and in detail."

Prof Robinson said: "Clearly there is no mandate for a single council. By claiming otherwise, the county council has sought to influence its consultees, the Government and the public by unjustified manipulation of independent survey data."