North Yorkshire County Council accused of attacking democracy over constitutional shake-up

County Hall in Northallerton.

The leaders of North Yorkshire County Council has been accused of attacking democracy by launching a constitutional shake-up, claiming it will empower local members.

North Yorkshire County Council’s executive is tomorrow expected to recommend its “internal devolution” plan for approval, in which its seven area committees are replaced by six others based on the county’s parliamentary constituencies.

The Richmondshire Area Committee will be replaced by a new committee based on the Richmond constituency.

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The move also aims to pass decision-making on an increasing range of services and issues to constituency committees.

Critics of the move say several of the new-look committees will serve areas featuring towns and villages which are more than 50 miles apart and have little in common, such as Hawes in Upper Wensleydale and Great Ayton, near Teesside.

Independent councillor John Blackie, who represents the Upper Dales, described the move as “naked political gerrymandering”.

He said: “At a stroke the proposal will remove the last committee at North Yorkshire County Council in which there is shared control between the Independents and the Conservatives – the Richmondshire Area Committee – leaving the Chairmanships of every committee at the county in the hands of the Tories, and thus making NYCC a one-party state.

“The issues are the same whether they be for Sedbusk near Hawes or Stokesley near Middlesbrough, but the impact can be entirely different.

“Ambulance response times might be an issue for us all, but the consequences of the impact if you live within 15 minutes of the James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough or 90 minutes, from the Upper Dales, can be the difference of a life saved or a life lost.

“In 21 years of being a county councillor I have never seen an MP at County Hall other than when William Hague MP addressed from the Grand Committee Room Balcony the 4,000 people in the grounds below, assembled for the March to Save the 24/7 consultant-led maternity at The Friarage Hospital.”

Councillor Bryn Griffiths, the Liberal Democrat member for Stokesley, said he had reservations about the move, but thought it might help MPs focus their energies on the most important issues.

He said: “I am not sure that the issues in northern Hambleton district and the Richmondshire are the same and when those district councils shared services it didn’t work so well.”

Leader of the council’s Labour group, Councillor Eric Broadbent said the move would hit democracy by giving some of the new-look committees less powers.

He said: “This is political manoeuvring and the MPs are not going to turn up.”

But the authority’s leader, Carl Les, said the move would empower local members by giving them more control over budgets and meant the committees were more evenly sized.

“Constituency basing brings an element of fairness in numbers, and a lot of our issues go up the chain of decision-making as well as down our own.

“Very local issues should be dealt with at the local level – that’s what we are elected to do while wider issues will still be welcomed and put on the agenda.”

The deputy leader, Councillor Gareth Dadd added that while the primary drive behind the move was to localise power, MPs would be invited to attend the new-look committees enabling councillors and Westminster politicians to hold each other to account and to facilitate dialogue in an open forum.

He said: “We want more input from the council’s membership.  Area committees have waned and they are not grasping the strategic issues. They never look at major services such as education or social services and yet they are well placed to come up with responses as they are closer.”

The population of each district in the county varies from 52,000 to 157,000, resulting in a large variation in the number of county councillors on the area committees.

Councillor Dadd said: “While there are just six members of the Richmondshire Area Committee, there are 18 in the Harrogate one, and recommondations from each of the committees carry the same weight.”

The changes would see about 12 to 14 councillors on each area committee, as  the population of the constituencies varies from 96,000 to 108,000.

Opponents of the move said while there may be some similar issues across constituencies, the impacts of changes in places more than 50 miles apart could be very different.