Secretary of State to decide over rival North Yorkshire unitary proposals

County Hall in Northallerton.

The Secretary of State for Local Government will decide between two contrasting proposals to create unitary authorities in North Yorkshire and York it has been agreed, despite claims a plan to create a mega council is riddled with errors and doomed to be rejected.

North Yorkshire County councillors have overwhelmingly voted in favour of submitting the authority’s plan to retain the county’s boundaries in the biggest shake-up of how public services are provided in the area since 1974.

After a two-hour debate which illustrated how polarised views on the changes have become, just 11 of the 68 elected members voted against allowing the government to consider the scheme for a single council encompassing a population of almost 620,000 against plans which district and borough councils have this week agreed to submit calling to split the county into east and west authorities.

Many councillors said the public consensus was that it was a completely inappropriate time to be reorganising local government, with one likening the action to shuffling deckchairs on a sinking ship.

But the authority’s leader, Councillor Carl Les warned councils were about to face “the biggest financial challenge ever” and the forecast £30m of savings that could be realised would be vital to protect services.

He said Secretary of State Robert Jenrick had told him the government had started a legal process over creating unitary authorities in North Yorkshire and would not halt it, despite the pandemic.

Cllr Les said the county’s proposal would protect high quality services, minimise disruption and deliver devolution in the shortest possible time.

Dismissing claims that a council based in Northallerton could not hope to understand the needs of residents of the 3,000sq mile area, he said the county’s proposal put localism above all else, ensuring “local services in local areas delivered by local staff and by local managers in local offices”.

Disputing that claim, the leader of the Independent group, Councillor Stuart Parsons, said the authority’s proposal was riddled with errors over local knowledge. He said it featured an “insulting” map, overlooking some market towns and showing ignorance about other settlements.

He said instead of simplifying local government in the county, the authority’s proposal would add confusion, citing how parishes were set to be allowed to decide if they wanted extra powers.

While the vast majority of councillors said they supported creating unitary authorities as it would cut duplication, the Labour group leader Councillor Eric Broadbent said “Yorkshire people have a sense of belonging” and creating one large authority would be a step too far.

However, the Liberal Democrat group leader, Councillor Geoff Webber emphasised he believed issues of remoteness across potentially the UK’s second largest local authority area after the Highlands were a thing of the past due to technology improvements.

Ryedale District Council leader Councillor Keane Duncan said the county’s proposal would create the lowest proportion of elected representatives of any population in England and unleash “distraction and division” between councils.

He said he was confident the government would reject the scheme as it would not produce a long-term solution. Cllr Duncan said: “It promises a revolution in localism, yet stands on a platform of centralising up rather than devolving down.”

Ahead of the vote, the meeting also heard calls for residents to be given a choice over the proposals, through a referendum, but the meeting was told it was in the government’s power to decide that too.