54LOCAL authority leaders in County Durham will today start debating whether to bid to rip up its council structure - with a deadline for any application only three months away.

A shake-up of local government proposed yesterday has given England's remaining two-tier areas a 12-week "window of opportunity" to apply to switch to unitary status.

The change could see Durham County Council and seven district councils replaced by a single unitary running all services - the option long favoured by the county council.

In the last consultation two years ago, the districts backed a system of three unitaries, raising the prospect of renewed conflict before any application is made.

A three-unitary structure would spell the death of County Durham, which dates back almost to 1066.

Speaking to The Northern Echo yesterday, Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly insisted the Government did not favour any particular council structure in areas such as County Durham.

Any proposal must have a "broad cross-section of support" and pass tests of providing value-for-money and strong leadership, she said.

However, ministers have threatened to override any opposition to scrapping two-tier authorities if they believe unitaries can deliver more efficient services.

Ms Kelly said: "We expect a small number of proposals to come forward, but we don't want people to get distracted by restructuring, as happened in the last reorganisation."

Last night, county council leader Albert Nugent said it needed to consider proposals in yesterday's White Paper for councils to co-operate together more closely.

Northumberland and North Yorkshire could also apply to scrap their two-tier structure. Unitaries already exist across Tyneside and Wearside and the former Cleveland area, as well as in Darlington.

Under yesterday's proposals, all local authorities must choose one of three new leadership models - a directly elected mayor, a directly elected executive or a more powerful council leader.

The key difference with the third option is that the leader will serve a four-year - rather than an annual - term, unless removed by a vote of no confidence by the full council.

The changes also make it, in theory, easier to switch to a mayoral system by allowing the council to vote it through without a referendum of voters. In reality, most local authorities have been resistant to elected mayors.

The White Paper also proposes giving ward councillors the power to hold powerful inquiries into the quality of local services.

Police chiefs, NHS bosses, teaching leaders and representatives from regional development agencies, job centres and the Highways Agency could be called to give evidence.