A MERGER between Huntingdonshire, Fenland and East Cambs district councils could happen within four years, it was revealed today.

A MERGER between Huntingdonshire, Fenland and East Cambs district councils could happen within four years, it was revealed today.

The leaders of all three councils have been meeting in secret to discuss the possibility and will now put their thoughts to all 130 councillors next month.

Staff at all three councils are tonight being briefed by their chief executives and senior managers about the possible merger which could save millions of pounds annually but result in hundreds losing their jobs.

Fenland Council leader Alan Melton said the three leaders had been talking informally about shared services for some time and merging all three councils was a possibility.

He said if councillors supported the proposal it could take up to four years to fully implement - and neither he nor the other two council leaders would expect to become leader in the new authority.

"Discussions are at a very early stage and at what you could call an embryonic stage," said Cllr Melton. "What we will be looking for is a mandate to continue those exploratory talks.

"If this merger was to go ahead it would make major cuts in bureaucracy and management costs. It will produce significant savings for Council Tax payers - we are talking millions of pounds.

"This money could be returned to the Council Tax payers by way of lower bills or better services or a combination of both."

Cllr Melton said all three leaders had signed a letter inviting their councillor colleagues to a meeting in Huntingdon on March 7 where the ideas will be discussed.

Councillor Fred Brown, leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, described the move as a "sensible solution to join working across county borders".

He said: "We sat around the table and thought 'what is the point of us being apart when it makes logical and financial sense for us to work together?'. We need more time to explore the full potential of the merger, but we know that in the future we can achieve more for less."

East Cambs was formed on April 1, 1974 with the merger of the Ely Urban District Council, Ely Rural Council and Newmarket Rural Council.

Mr Brown said he envisaged "huge savings" could be made from the move, which at this stage only involves the controlling (Conservative) groups in each area.

Cllr Melton said: "All three authorities have a chief executive, deputies and whole layers of bureaucratic structures that could be removed. The minimum we might expect from these talks is a coming together of shared services - the maximum a complete merger."

He said the merger talks "are not a political issue. This is something we feel all reasonable councillors will want to sign up too in the name of efficiency, localism and the delivery of first class services."

Cllr Melton added that it could also lead to more powers being devolved to town and parish councils and to neighbourhood boards "which are the very things being encouraged by the Localism Bill.

"But this is not a bid to create a unitary authority - it is simply a merging of district council services where synergies exist. We are all rural based areas and all based on market towns. We all suffer poor rural infrastructure, poor transport and high costs."