TWO unitary councils under an elected mayor of Cumbria has emerged as the new frontrunner for Cumbria in a county-wide overhaul of local government.

The model appears to be the preferred option in any future devolution deal following a crunch leaders’ summit held yesterday in Penrith with Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry.

A team of civil servants will be sent north in the coming weeks to help councils thrash out an agreement against the clock.

Cumbria now operates as a “two-tier” system made of several district councils under an over-arching county council. But a long-overdue shake-up could soon see the existing model scrapped and replaced with a new streamlined version.

The move could see increased powers for Cumbria as well as greater investment in the region.

The minister told all six of the district council leaders and county council leader Stewart Young that he wouldn't want to see children’s or adult social care split in two, but would favour outsourcing them to a “private charitable trust".

He also told them he wouldn't want to split up the fire service, suggesting that might fall under the jurisdiction of the Elected Mayor of Cumbria.

It was also suggested the Mayor would take over responsibility for the police from the Police and Crime Commissioner.

Mr Young said: “The minister made it clear that if we want a devolution deal, we will have to scrap all the existing councils, create two new unitaries, form a combined authority consisting of the two new unitaries, and create a new directly elected mayor to cover the whole of Cumbria.

“He thinks this can all be done, including passing the parliamentary approval process, in time for elections for the two new councils and a Mayor in May, 2021.”

But Mr Young was sceptical that consensus could be reached by then, describing the timeframe as “ambitious”.

Historically, agreement among leaders has proved elusive but Mike Starkie, the elected mayor of Copeland, described the talks as “positive”.

Speaking immediately after the summit, he said he felt “more encouraged this time than ever before” that a solution would be found.

Civil servants will be heading up to Cumbria in the next three weeks to help council chiefs work out the detail of what any future deal might look like.

This will see the council leaders and their chief executives work out among themselves the shape of local government across Cumbria before putting their plans to Whitehall.

Concerns have been raised that an overhaul of local governance could be imposed upon Cumbria if they fail to reach a consensus.

Mr Starkie said there had been more consensus than he had seen before as the leaders move into the negotiation stage.

He added: “Devolution is the only show in town: the time is now.

"While there is real Government focus on the north, we need to take advantage of that.”

A devolution deal, which would have involved the transfer of money and decision-making, fell flat in 2016 when councils failed to agree on a governance model.

Marion Fitzgerald, leader of Allerdale Council, described the meeting as “productive”.

She said: “The Government is clearly ready to listen to our proposals.  It is up to us now to work together to formulate and agree a plan as to how we can improve our future prospects across Cumbria.

"We should be ambitious in what we ask for.  We hope to have some outline plans ready within the next few weeks.”

John Mallinson, leader of Carlisle City Council, also said the meeting was “positive” with “clear direction” from Mr Berry.

“Devolution is on offer and that means more powers to be determined locally – and that’s a big prize,” he added.

He revealed he was optimistic that the councils across Cumbria could reach a “broad consensus” if not necessarily a unanimous decision.