CONTROVERSIAL plans to sweep away the council structure in County Durham were confirmed today -as similar plans were shelved elsewhere in England.

John Healey, the Local Government Minister, announced that a single, all-purpose unitary authority will be created - as it will in Northumberland.

However, the move came as the Minister surprised MPs by putting on hold the expected switch to a unitary structure in four other areas - Cheshire, Bedfordshire, Ipswich and Exeter.

Furthermore, County Durham and Northumberland will now pioneer the shake-up, with elections in May next year, although the new councils will not be set up for a further 12 months.

In the other three areas where the two-tier structure is being scrapped - Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire - the first elections will not be held until May 2009.

Albert Nugent, the Durham County Council leader, said: "I'm pleased the Government has confirmed its initial view that unitary local government is the way forward.

"It enables us to continue working with the district councils to implement the unitary proposal and ensure that we deliver better and cost-effective services."

In a statement to MPs, Mr Healey said: "These proposals provide for new and innovative local governance in each of the areas concerned.

"They open the door to the creation of new flagship councils, which can lead the way on empowering citizens and communities, promoting prosperity and modernising local service delivery."

In July the Government said it was "minded" to accept nine proposals for unitary authorities, further to financial guarantees.