Local priorities to remain at heart of decision making, says county council leader after unitary announcement

Carl Les, leader of North Yorkshire County Council.

North Yorkshire County Council leader Carl Les says local priorities will remain at the heart of decision making and there will be a clear focus on collaboration with partners when the county moves to a single unitary authority.

His statement follows the announcement by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick MP, that he has chosen the county council’s proposal for the future delivery of local public services here.

As such, a new single and strong council will deliver all public services to every household in the county from April 2023, replacing the eight councils currently operating under the two-tier system.

Cllr Les added: “We have worked incredibly hard to get to this point because we believe it’s the right thing for North Yorkshire, its people and businesses.

“The decision allows us to strengthen the services we know matter most to people and ensure they are fit for the future.

“A single council will also make things simpler for everyone – just one number to call, one website, one customer service team and one accountable body delivering all local government services here.

“Support for businesses, High Streets and Market Towns can be aligned more closely with investment in infrastructure like highways and broadband. Planning, housing and health services will be able to provide more joined up support for families and communities.

“At this time it feels right to say thank you to all council staff, county and district, for their dedication and professionalism during an unsettling time with both the pandemic and local government reorganisation pressures.

“The judgement provides the clarity our dedicated public sector workforce deserve.”

Wendy Nichols, secretary of the North Yorkshire Branch of Unison, which represents more than 5,500 council employees also welcomed the news.

“Our priority is to make sure that staff experience the least possible disruption so they can get on with their jobs and continue to deliver high quality and reliable public services.

“Many thousands of staff will now simply transfer to the new council as part of the process of setting it up and hardworking officers in the district and borough councils will be able to TUPE across on their current terms and conditions.

“I hope this announcement is welcomed by all members as really positive and that the spirit of professionalism continues as teams across councils work together to deliver a stronger future for everyone’s benefit.”

NYCC county council chief executive, Richard Flinton, said the announcement was “positive news” for the county.

“Never have we needed a unified approach and strong voice more than we do now as we strive to deliver better life chances for everyone here, while working hard with partners and businesses to drive post-Covid economic recovery.

“This decision is a huge step towards ensuring the county can punch its weight regionally and nationally to create better opportunities for people and communities at a critical time. It places us firmly on the path to reap the many benefits that devolution can deliver and safeguards public services.

“It also allows us to deliver on our promise to empower local communities including town and parish councils and local groups and to work with them to develop plans and people focussed networks around our market towns. Local decision making and action will be a key feature of the new council.

“However, as the public would expect, we will roll up our sleeves and remain focussed on providing North Yorkshire with high quality public services from the heart of communities while we manage this transformation process.”

However, the decision has been met with dismay by district and borough council leaders, who had proposed splitting the county and York on an east-west basis into two unitary councils with similar population sizes, but they said they would work with the county council to forge the best result for residents.

Announcing the decision, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick said he considered the single authority covering North Yorkshire met all three of the criteria the government set.

The government has concluded proposal to keep North Yorkshire County Council’s boundaries was likely to improve local government and service delivery across its area and would command a good deal of local support across the whole area of the proposal. He said the new unitary council would have a credible geography.

Mr Jenrick added: “I have also decided not to implement the proposal for two unitary councils – one council comprising the existing areas of Ryedale, Scarborough, Selby and the current unitary of York, and the other council comprising the existing areas of Craven, Hambleton, Harrogate and Richmondshire. I considered that this proposal did not meet the improving local government and service delivery and credible geography criteria.”

Mr Jenrick said he would seek parliamentary approval for the necessary secondary legislation to implement the decisions, laying draft structural changes before Parliament about at the end of the year, which would feature provisions for elections in May 2022 for the future unitary councils.

Councillors across the county have since been locked in a bitter struggle over the reorganisation, which has saw them warned by the county’s civic leader that they faced having a council system shaped by Whitehall mandarins unless they worked together to find a solution.

However, after the announcement Richmondshire District Council leader Councillor Angie Dale said the authority would accept the decision and work to produce the best outcome for residents.

The announcement came hours after a full meeting of North Yorkshire County Council hearing leaders of the rival proposals say it was vital local authorities accepted the result.

Former Ryedale council leader Councillor Keane Duncan said: “Previous examples of local government reorganisation have shown that legal challenges rarely if ever lead to success and do not serve the interests of taxpayers.”

The decision comes a year after local government minister Simon Clarke told the leaders of the county’s seven borough and district councils, county council and City of York Council, that local government reorganisation had become a requirement of devolution and a key part of the government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy for the area.

But opposition parties have maintained the reorganisation should be postponed as it would soak up council resources at a time when they are facing unprecedented pressures.

Within weeks of the minister’s request it emerged the county’s seven district and borough councils had poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of council tax into a “fighting fund” to battle against North Yorkshire and City of York Council’s plans to maintain their boundaries in the new unitary authorities.

There was further ill-will as Hambleton council dropped out of the district councils’ partnership backing east and west unitary authorities, with its leader stating he could not support anything that would not benefit the district’s residents.