North Yorkshire County Council claims unitary campaign boost with minister’s assurance

County Hall, Northallerton.

The leaders of a proposal to scrap North Yorkshire’s seven district councils and create the largest local authority area in England have claimed a boost for their campaign after the government said a single unitary authority with a 610,000 population was a possibility.

However, local government minister Simon Clarke’s assurance to North Yorkshire County Council stopped short of stating a single council covering the 3,109sq mile area could be acceptable and whether populations, rather than areas, would be the starting point for unitary council proposals.

Mr Clarke has told North Yorkshire and York council leaders to prepare proposals to create one or more unitary authorities to cover the area by September as pre-requisite of devolution.

In 2007, following months of consultation and bruising arguments, a similar proposal by the authority was rejected by the then Labour government on the grounds that it would span too wide an area, had no natural centre, was not a coherent entity and would be too difficult and complex to work.

At the time, research agency Ipsos MORI found the majority of North Yorkshire residents thought the area was too big to be served by one authority and that a single council would be too remote and less in touch with local needs.

While Harrogate Borough Council leader Councillor Richard Cooper warned in 2017 that “desktop exercises by number-crunchers armed with a map and a red pen must not be allowed to put our local services in danger”, Ryedale council’s leader Councillor Keane Duncan has revealed a plan to divide the county into two areas.

Cllr Duncan said: “My aim is to keep local government local. But this isn’t just about size, it’s about identity too.”

Nevertheless, the county council’s leadership has said a critical mass of residents is needed for a unitary authority to achieve the best value for taxpayers and points towards unitary authorities in rural areas with similar populations, such as Durham, which has 530,094 resident, Cornwall which has 569,578 residents and Buckinghamshire, which has 543,973 residents.

The government is also considering proposals for unitary authorities with populations of more than one million in Surrey and Hertfordshire.

Following Mr Clarke’s response over the population proposal, the county council claimed he had issued “a strong rebuttal” to claims a single unitary authority for the county would not be acceptable.

 The authority’s leader, Councillor Carl Les said the minister had clarified the issue around whether a single council would be within the range of Government’s plans and he hoped the statement would “lay the counter argument to rest once and for all”.
He said: “It’s there in black and white to be read by anyone who would like to see it so now we get on with the important business of preparing our bid.
“The timescales are tight and time is of the essence – the moment is now and we have a very strong case to argue.

“Not only will a new single, strong, sustainable council for North Yorkshire protect outstanding services which safeguard our most vulnerable people, but it is the only bid which will keep the county together and prevent the huge disruption to frontline public services that splitting them up would deliver.

“It will also enable a double devo deal by which we will empower local communities by handing down additional powers and budgets to town and parish council who want them and give people a stronger say via a network of community forums based around market town areas.”