A GROUP of local authority leaders fighting plans which would see their councils replaced by a unitary authority covering the largest area in England have ramped up tensions by accusing their county council rivals of using “propaganda”.

The leaders of North Yorkshire’s seven district and borough councils have called on the county council to “play fair with the public” as it campaigns to create a system of local government it claims would save taxpayers at least £25m a year at a time pressures on public finances are set to mount.

The rift is growing despite many of the district and borough councils being Conservative colleagues of the county council’s Tory leaders and comes with just weeks to go until councils are expected to submit bids to the government over how local authorities should be run in the county and York.

It also comes despite county council leader Councillor Carl Les calling for “no acrimony” as proposals were being developed, as happened the last time creating a unitary authority in North Yorkshire was considered.

The district and borough council leaders criticism comes after the county council highlighted some benefits neighbouring Durham County Council had seen after becoming a unitary authority in 2009 and claimed its bid had been backed by its northern neighbour.

While Durham’s chief executive did state as a single authority North Yorkshire could expect to see local issues “dealt with really effectively”, its leader, Councillor Simon Henig, denied having endorsed the county’s plans.

Speaking on behalf of North Yorkshire’s seven district and borough council leaders, Councillor Mark Crane said: “The public deserve honesty and fairness as we work out the future of local government in North Yorkshire and York. But it is becoming clear that North Yorkshire County Council is instead resorting to propaganda to overstate support for its mega-council model.”

Cllr Crane said the district councils, which have yet to detail their proposals and are understood to have poured £175,000 of public money into a fighting fund, were “listening to the public and we’re thinking carefully”.

The criticism comes a fortnight after Ryedale District Council leader Councillor Keane Duncan claimed “a county-wide option would be the largest unitary ever created in England in terms of both population and area” with about 600,000 residents, despite North Yorkshire’s neighbour Leeds City Council having about 800,000 residents.

Cllr Crane said: “We are exploring all of the options with an independent study and we will ultimately be guided by evidence. Early analysis shows there are practical and democratic benefits to creating two unitary authorities with roughly even populations. This would result in new councils across North Yorkshire and York, both large enough to be efficient into the future but local enough to keep local connections to our communities. We promise to play fair, to be frank, and to be open and responsive to feedback, as we work with our residents, businesses and partners to build the very best proposal for new local government. We call upon North Yorkshire County Council to do the same.”

In response to the criticism, Cllr Les said he was disappointed the district leaders had characterised the county’s press statements as a propaganda war.

He said: “Their social media campaign may be seen as kettle and pot. However, I agree with Cllr Crane, a long-standing colleague, that we should all play fair.”

Cllr Les said the example of Durham had been used to demonstrate how community engagement can still operate effectively in a unitary authority, not to endorse the bid which has not been finished yet.

He said: “We have tried to be factual and play with a straight bat. We have not criticised the preparation of their proposal, other than we have a fundamental concern about splitting North Yorkshire in two, and bringing an unwilling York into the mix. They think that our proposal is too big. So let`s agree to disagree.

“Let`s get on and prepare our respective proposals and on the assumption we all get a letter inviting us to do so, let`s submit them to the Secretary of State and the Local Government Minister, the two most senior politicians in the land charged with making local government deliver, and let them test the bids against the criteria for success that they have drawn up. Then they can consult to gauge support.

“So no more thinking of whipped votes, no more trying to stop an opposing team get on the pitch, please. Let’s proceed with mutual respect. We are all trying to serve our residents to the best of our ability, increase efficiency and remove costs.”