Posted: 21.09.20 at 13:07 by Nick Hudson
THE POLITICAL battle to stop the proposed Great Atherstone Sell-off could end in a two-way split of Warwickshire.
Five borough and district authorities believe the future of local democracy should be shaped by the views of residents, businesses, community groups, town, and parish councils.
And an independent assessment of options for the biggest re-organisation of local government in almost half a century favours the creation of two councils – for the north and south of the county.
The expert report by Deloitte will be used as the basis for the important initial public consultations – with Atherstone and district being recommended to be part of a new ‘North Warwickshire’ unitary authority.
The report was commissioned by the quintet – North Warwickshire plus authorities representing Nuneaton and Bedworth, Stratford, Warwick and Rugby – ahead of a Government White Paper on reform which was originally due this month.
It has arrived 24 hours before all the members of Warwickshire County Council are due to vote on a unanimous Cabinet recommendation to replace the current two-tier model with a unitary authority – effectively signalling the dissolution of district and borough councils including the North Warwickshire authority.
The Cabinet came to that decision at the end of last month after considering a 48-page report that claimed a new Warwickshire-wide authority would deliver “simplified, more accountable leadership with decision making that is closer to communities”.
But the five councils, in a breakaway movement, have agreed to seek the public’s views before formulating proposals for change once the White Paper has been published.
Deloitte’s report found that creating two councils – splitting the county in a straight north-south geographical divide – would be the best way to provide better value for money, higher quality services focused on their communities.
Two unitary councils would also foster stronger local leadership, giving clearer lines of responsibility and accountability.
Views will be sought on options for the county, including the recommended one of creating a new unitary council which covers the boroughs of North Warwickshire, Nuneaton and Bedworth and Rugby, while establishing a second South Warwickshire Council covering Warwick and Stratford Districts.
The new authorities would replace the current two-tier system in the county, where the county council is responsible for certain services such as highways, transport and social care, and the five borough and district councils are responsible for others such as planning, waste collection and leisure.
Although the report, commissioned by the five councils, found having a single authority for the whole of Warwickshire would save marginally more money overall, different levels of council tax could remove those savings, would ‘diminish local leadership’ and would harm the quality of service provision locally.
While the two new unitary authorities would be separate, the report also recommended collaborative working for services such as children’s care and waste disposal, as well as becoming full members of the West Midlands Combined Authority for higher-level strategic economic development and transport.
Crucially, the report found the county’s clear north-south divide in terms of the economy, health needs and demographics means having two unitary authorities would represent better value for money than having one authority controlling the whole of the county, saving more than £25 million a year in taxpayers’ money, compared to the current system.
In a joint statement, the five leaders said: “This is about giving our residents great value, great quality local government services, fit for the next 50 years and best able to meet whatever challenges may lie ahead for our communities.
“All local authorities are under financial pressure already, and Covid-19 has only made the situation tougher.
“Saving our taxpayers money while delivering high quality, modern local government services is of the utmost importance.
“We are keen to carefully consider all the options to achieve this goal and look forward to having a meaningful discussion with those who live and work in the county about the future. If that means reorganising our two-tier system, then we will support that.
“Although having one authority for the whole of the county may initially save the most money, the report makes it crystal clear the needs of Warwick and Stratford’s residents are very different to those in the north of the county and, therefore, creating two unitary authorities could well be the best option for all.
“The county is quite unusual in the sense that the north is clearly distinct from the south in all sorts of ways.
“We need to make sure we are focussing the right services on the right people.
“This report is clear that having two separate authorities will deliver the best outcome to our residents while saving money, but we now want to test that with residents and businesses as this conversation continues.
“Publishing this report widely means that there can be informed discussion amongst residents and councils at all levels. This will help secure the best solution for the county and its residents.”
North Warwickshire’s Labour group leader Adam Farrell has openly criticised the ‘unitary’ approach of the county council’s Cabinet. He claims the “mask has slipped” as local Conservatives have voted to scrap district councils and run everything from Shire Hall in Warwick, adding: “A single Warwickshire council would be a disaster for our communities.
He also turned on three policy-making Conservative representatives for “staying silent” as the Cabinet approved plans to abolish local democracy last month.
Under the as yet unseen White Paper, all options seem to pointing to the effective end of the Atherstone-based North Warwickshire Borough Council as a civic entity in the future.
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