PLANS to radically reorganise local government in Cumbria should be put on hold until the country emerges from the pandemic, says a former Carlisle MP.

Eric Martlew, who represented the city for Labour until he stepped down in 2010, believes replacing the county’s seven councils - six district authorities and the County Council - would distract local politicians and officials from the vital job of supporting communities during the current crisis.

Cumbria County Council’s cabinet last month approved plans to replace the current structures with one new unitary authority.

At the Government’s invitation, their proposal has been submitted- along with a business case - to Simon Clarke, the regional growth and local government minister following talks with local leaders about reform and devolution.

Council bosses believes moving to a single authority could produce annual savings of £24million and pave the way for greater devolution.

But Mr Martlew said: “We’re in the middle of a pandemic so the process should be paused. I was a young councillor on the old city borough council when they last reorganised and it started in 1972 when the government came up with the proposals.

“It took them two years to get it working properly.

“But the pandemic is the worst crisis this country has seen since the war.” Mr Martlew said the huge challenge of reorganisation would be an unhelpful distraction. “They need to be totally focused on the pandemic,” added Mr Martlew.

Cumbria County Council Leader Stewart Young said: “Eric’s entitled to his opinion.

“But we have to deal with the world as it is and not as we would like to be. This is a legislated process and the minister has issued a legal letter inviting unitary proposals, which have to be in by November 9.

“The County Council has already made its submission for a single unitary authority weeks ago.

“We don’t know what the districts will put forward; and we know that our MPs favour two unitaries. The minister will only consider propositions which are put forward so we’re not going to leave a clear field for everybody else to put their propositions in when we don’t

“That would be nonsensical.

“There’s a long history to this. It should have happened in 2008. There’ll never be a right time for Eric but the direction of travel is very clear. Unitaries are coming and if you want a devolution deal you have to move to a unitary structure first - otherwise you won’t get one.”

Carlisle City Council’s Deputy Leader Gareth Ellis was also against delaying the move to a new local authority structure.

He said: “We’ve been waiting long enough now. I’ve seen at least three attempts to change the system. There’s always a reason not to do it. “

Mr Ellis wants two Cumbrian unitary authorities - one based on the current Carlisle, Eden Allerdale districts, and the other on Copeland, Barrow, and South Lakes.