Debate hots up into local authority re-design
DISCUSSION is increasing into how local government could be run in Northamptonshire, following an initial request from all seven of the county’s MPs to consider changing the current two-tier system to a unitary authority.
A letter was signed by Peter Bone, Andrea Leadsom, Chris Heaton-Harris, Philip Hollobone, Tom Pursglove, David Mackintosh and Michael Ellis, saying: ‘We want councils that can meet the simultaneous challenges of increased demand for services and reduced funding and we believe that simplified local government in the form of unitary authorities provides the opportunities to do that.’
The letter has prompted reactions from the county council and borough/district councils.
The current system of one county council (Northamptonshire) and seven districts and borough councils – Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering, Wellingborough, Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire – has been operating since 1974. The county council oversees highways, education, libraries and social care while boroughs and districts are in charge of housing, parks and rubbish collection. The move to a countywide authority would take all services under one roof.
It is estimated that unitary governance in Northamptonshire could save the taxpayer up to £80million each year.
But at a meeting earlier this month, the leaders of the borough and district councils dismissed the idea of one large unitary authority, calling it ‘the worst option’.
Reacting to that, deputy leader of the county council Heather Smith – who takes over the helm when county leader Jim Harker steps down in May – said: “We were interested to read the statement from the district and borough council outlining what they don’t want to see in order to simplify local government in the county. It is interesting to read so early in these considerations that one option has been completely and unilaterally ruled out by our district and borough partners and we would be interested to see the analysis which has led to this dismissal of this option.
“We would rather focus on what is required rather than simply ruling options out with no discussion. Following the request to do so by our MPs and the recent surprise announcement by South Northamptonshire [on potential devolution from Northants to join neighbouring Cherwell District Council as a unitary authority], we are now working on different models to ensure value for money is secured for taxpayers to avoid costly and unnecessary duplication caused by multiple councils, while ensuring critical services such as child protection and safeguarding vulnerable adults are delivered in the most effective way across the county, by those professionals most experienced in doing so.
“It is essential that any decision that is made is done so with full consultation with the people of Northamptonshire rather than something that is just done by politicians.
“What is most important at this stage is not to allow our thinking to be restrained by looking simply at council structures. We need to be bolder and looking at integration with health, broader regional transport planning and devolved powers from government. Only by doing this will we create the best public services and get the best deal for the people across the county.”
County council leader Jim Harker has said a re-design of local government is one part of the wider innovation required in how services are provided as the county continues to face further population pressures with less money available. Northamptonshire County Council has already announced plans for its Next Generation Model of providing services through commissioned enterprises rather than directly, and it reports that significant steps have been taken towards integration with health services and emergency services.
On potential unitary government, Cllr Harker said: “There are some obvious options for how this might work and these would need to be properly evaluated in terms of services quality and value for money and, of course, we would need wider consultation with the people of the county.
“Obviously, scale is an important consideration regarding local government and looking at unitary arrangements elsewhere in the country, places with populations between 700,000 and 1million, tend to work better than smaller areas.”
The concept of unitary governance will be discussed with all political parties initially before firmer proposals are drawn up and considered. Cllr Harker continued: “Whichever model is chosen, collaboration with partners is key to going forward and we should not just become fixated on local government as a sector in isolation.
“We are delivering a sustainability and transformation plan based on county-based and county-wide health and care organisations – an approach agreed by health and social care commissioners. With the police – there are huge opportunities for us to provide a modern, fit-for-purpose blue light service, while saving money with continued integration of police and fire. And there are opportunities to be had on the collaboration of waste services.”
Pictured above – CONSULTATION: Oundle’s Heather Smith takes over as leader of the county council in May.