Richmondshire councillors have given their support for an alternative vision for what devolution will look like under plans to shake up local democracy in the region.
The authority has joined with North Yorkshire’s six other district and borough councils in proposing the county is split into two roughly equal authorities.
The councils say this system would maintain close links to communities and ensure residents and businesses still had a voice.
The stance means they are opposing North Yorkshire County Council’s plan for one large authority for North Yorkshire, which it says will save tax-payers £25m a year.
Last month, all the councils were told they would have to be scrapped if North Yorkshire wants devolution, which would bring more powers and spending potential to the county.
Speaking on behalf of the council leaders’ group, Councillor Angie Dale, Leader of Richmondshire District Council, said: “We were in discussions with the Minister earlier this month, and it is clear that the government is open to granting devolved powers and potentially billions in investment to our area, but only if local government is reorganised first. It’s really not a question of “if” reorganisation will happen. It’s more a question of ‘how’.
“A mega council, covering the entire North Yorkshire area – the biggest county area in the whole country – has been mooted.
“But we don’t believe that’s workable, or in the best interests of our people, places and economy. Our citizens deserve better, which is why we’re campaigning to create an alternative bid that gets reorganisation right.”
In a letter sent to The Times this week, the council leaders called for “good old-fashioned Yorkshire common-sense” to prevail on local government reorganisation, which they say should be centred on workable geographies and an understanding of local communities and economies.
Cllr Dale said: “Reorganising local government will affect the lives of 800,000 people, so we’ve got to get it right. Over the next few weeks we will be reaching out to communities, businesses, councillors, parish councils and other local organisations, to find out how we can build on what we already do well, and where things could improve.
“We’ll be doing a lot of listening. We want any bid that goes before government to have local support, and we hope that government will respect that grass-roots approach.”
But Conservative county council leader Cllr Carl Les said: “Not only will a single council based on the county’s current identity, simplify things for people and businesses – renewing our economic fortunes following the shock delivered by the pandemic – it will protect and strengthen high-quality frontline services.
“It will also unleash the county’s potential and deliver very significant financial savings by ending duplication, improving efficiency and driving innovation.
“We estimate savings in excess of £25m every year, offering the best value for money for everyone.
“No other bid would be able to match these benefits. Equally importantly it will protect a global and recognised brand which is crucial for our visitor economy.”
The leader of York City Council, which is already a unitary authority, Liberal Democrat Keith Aspden, has also gone on the record asking for the authority to have its boundaries kept intact.
He told a recent council meeting: “City of York has worked successfully as a unitary authority since 1996, representing a unique self-governing and historic city.
“We do not believe that any changes to our structures or boundaries are required.”
The county’s seven district councils – Scarborough, Harrogate, Ryedale, Craven, Hambleton, Selby and Richmondshire alternative proposals would likely see the county and York split in half to create two authorities of roughly the same population size under one Mayor.
North Yorkshire County Council says its single council bid will align with a public statement from the Secretary of State, Simon Clarke MP in June when he said that “as a rule of thumb” new unitary authorities are expected to have populations “substantially in excess of 300,000-400,000”.
North Yorkshire as a whole would have a population of approximately 600,000.
Cllr Siddons, meanwhile, says the districts are working to what they were told by Mr Clarke that the “optimum” size for a unitary authority would be 400,000 people and not below 300,000.
If this were the case it would mean that York, with a population of approximately 210,000 would be too small to go it alone.
When asked by the Local Democracy Reporting Service about the discrepancy in the figures being quoted by the authorities a spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said Mr Clarke had been quoting previously published data issued by the department in 2006 which suggested that 400,000-600,00 was the optimal range.
Later, in advice given to Northamptonshire authorities in 2018 documents produced at that time stated that new unitary authorities were expected to have a “substantial population that at a minimum is substantially in excess of 300,000” and be based on “credible geography”.
An MHCLG spokesman said: “We’re committed to levelling up all areas of the country and empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster. We’ll set out our detailed plans in a White Paper this autumn”
Plans for devolution for North Yorkshire have to be submitted to the government by September.