A review of proposed sweeping changes to local government in North Yorkshire and York has concluded having an elected mayor and a combined authority “will promote local democracy”.
The claim in a report to a meeting of North Yorkshire County Council’s executive on Tuesday comes ahead of an eight-week public consultation over the devolution deal that local authorities have struck with the government alongside local government reorganisation.
Concerns have been repeatedly raised by councillors in North Yorkshire that the substitution of the county’s district, borough and county councils for a single unitary council and a mayor-led combined authority will erode residents’ ability to shape key decisions.
Earlier this month Independent councillor John McCartney said many residents engaged in local democracy felt “irked and discombobulated” as their local councils were being swapped for a remote one in what he described as “a power grab” by County Hall in Northallerton.
Independent group leader Councillor Stuart Parsons has described the potential substitution of hundreds of district and borough representatives for two North Yorkshire and two City of York councillors on a combined authority as a blow for democratic representation and decision-making.
Green Party group coordinator Councillor Andy Brown said devolution “did not appear to be a great exercise in democracy” in the county.
However, the officer’s report to the executive highlights how local government reorganisation was a prerequisite of devolution, which under the proposed deal would bring £540m of new Government investment to spend on local priorities.
The report states: “The deal means that decisions previously taken centrally would now be taken closer to the people affected and the region is not disadvantaged as other regions acquire their own devolution deals.
“The proposed mayoral combined authority will promote local democracy through direct democratic accountability. The introduction of a directly-elected mayor will enable a greater focus for change that will seek to enhance
The county council’s leader, Councillor Carl Les, said the consultation would see the authority argue very strongly that the devolution deal would see more decision-making by locally-elected politicians, rather than civil servants and ministers in Whitehall.
He said while much of the structure of local government in North Yorkshire would not change, the most notable differences would be having an elected mayor to act as a strong voice for the county and city and a combined authority to provide strategic decision-making.
Addressing concerns over local democracy, Coun Les said while all residents would continue to a locally elected councillor to represent them, the council was in talks with a number of parish and town councils about what services they would like to have jurisdiction over.
He said there was “nothing on or off the table” in terms of the powers towns and parishes could take on.
Coun Les said: “It is certainly not a power grab. The county council delivers 80 per cent of the services by value and it made sense to have a continuing authority as it would be easier to transfer staff in from the district councils than it would have been to transfer 14,000 county council staff and the district councils staff into a new authority.”