North Yorkshire’s new unitary authority which will serve residents 57 miles to the east, south and west of its headquarters has underlined its ambition to be considered a truly local council.
Ahead of North Yorkshire Council launching across England’s largest local authority area on April Fools Day, its leader Councillor Carl Les said he was serious about improving services for all of its 605,000 residents.
The intention to provide bespoke services for communities from Filey to Hawes and from Skipton to Staithes follows a barrage of claims from elected members of the county’s district and borough councils that residents will be the poorer without their focus on a smaller area.
However, Coun Les and chief executive of the incoming authority Richard Flinton have roundly rejected the claims, saying the lion’s share of council services have been run across the same geography for the last 50 years.
Nevertheless, the authority has developed a strategy to tailor services to the needs of different areas, replicating its long-established highways management areas across all services.
Mr Flinton said: “We will have locally-based managers who have a strong understanding of the issues in their areas.”
In addition, the authority will establish a number of ways to connect into communities, with a large “locality team” of officers and through the use the constituency area committees, in which councillors will make some decisions, mainly over smaller scale issues.
Mr Flinton said: “What we absolutely know from the elections of last May is we’ve got 90 very energetic members who are very keen for us to understand all of their concerns in their divisions.
While the 90 divisions are smaller than those county councillors previously served the unitary council’s elected members will take on extra and responsibilities for time-consuming issues such as planning. Opponents of the unitary authority have questioned how councillors representing more than ten parishes will have time to attend to meetings and issues across their patch.
Responding to claims that having 90 rather than 319 councillors representing North Yorkshire’s communities would mean worse representation, Coun Les said as one of three elected members for Bedale, councillors there had been “falling over each other” as there had been “very little to do”.
He said: “Representation by numbers doesn’t work. What matters is if you’ve got energetic people in the cohort of 90. The great benefit of reducing from 319 is that we have saved £750,000.
“I think we’ve got enough members to represent the people and continue the political process. You don’t have to go to a parish meeting to understand what’s happening in that parish.”
The authority’s leadership says while one safeguard against parochialism on the new authority would be in its executive members representing communities from across the county, another is by retaining its headquarters in Northallerton.
Mr Flinton said: “If our headquarters was in Harrogate or Scarborough then there might be more of a concern that we would be focused on that as the council view of the world. Being in a fairly modest market town mitigates against that.”
Recent months have seen repeated complaints from some residents and opposition councillors that the county’s rural expanses are bereft of services, Coun Les said while the council would continue to provide costly doorstep services in remote rural areas, residents could expect investment to be focused on areas where most people would benefit.
He added: “If money is scarce you have got to spend it where it is going to be best used.”
Although the unitary authority’s basic infrastructure has been created ahead of its launch, major changes to council services are set to happen over the coming year, such as pulling together seven separate housing or planning services into one.
Mr Flinton said: “This isn’t about just getting through and holding together everything that happened before. This is looking at it service by service as to how we can make improvements.”
He said “snagging issues” were expected when the new council launched due to the scale of the merger and “eight different ways of working” being fused.
Mr Flinton said: “If things are still not right in a year’s time we can really be held to account. Our aspiration is the vast majority of people will still get a really strong service and where things go wrong to get on top of it quickly and put things right. It’s almost a call to arms – if people see things that could be better let us know.
“We are hoping it is a bit like the Millennium Bug where everybody thought the world was going to end and planes would drop out of the sky when it turned out that it was all fine.”