Unitary plans for Northamptonshire get green light

NCC splitNorthamptonshire County Council is to be split into two unitary authorities, said Inspector Max Caller, following a financial crisis affecting the NCC over the last year.

The eight principal councils in Northamptonshire have sent proposals to the Secretary of State for the abolition of these principal councils (NCC and seven district councils), and their replacement by two adjoining unitary councils.

The new “Unitary North Northamptonshire” incorporating Oundle would comprise the Corby, East Northamptonshire, Wellingborough and Kettering territories.

Town and parish councils are not affected by the proposals.

Rupert Reichhold, a district councillor for the East Northamptonshire Council and former county councillor, said “In the proposals, we and other present principal councils have asked for a total of 78 unitary councillors for Unitary North Northamptonshire Council, based on three unitary councillors for every present NCC Electoral Division. This is to allow for sufficient councillors both to cover the wider range of work now done separately by the current councils, and to deal with constituents’ case work on the many issues raised by us.”

Oundle is currently represented by Heather Smith. Cllr Reichhold said: “I respect Councillor Heather Smith, who is a good councillor.”

However, Ms Smith remains undecided about whether to continue: “I haven’t yet made any decision on whether or not to stand as an Independent Unitary Councillor. Naturally there will no longer be any County Councillors.”

During the transition, the current council structure will be maintained for one more year to allow councils to complete the arrangements for restructuring, with the two elections for the two unitaries being held in April 2020. Two unitaries will come into operation in May 2020. It is proposed that a group from the current council remain as a ‘residual body’ to make sure a financial crisis is not repeated.

It is expected that services available to the new councils would increase with the passing of time as the two unitaries reach a more stable position after their development: “Again, the costs of such transformation will be significant and the benefits will only accrue in later years.”

Mr. Reichhold said: “Having served as a Northamptonshire County councillor between 2001 and 2013, I am sorry that Northamptonshire County Council will be coming to an end. We now need to look forward to make success of the successor unitary councils.”

The unitaries will certainly need to avoid the previous mistakes detailed in the Inspector’s report.

Mr Reichold pointed out that the NCC was not the only council having financial problems. “This is because the government changed the law. They reformed the present way in which government supports the councils. In the past there was a block grant – a revenue support grant – which aimed to cover two-thirds of every council’s expenditure. The other third, the council would fund themselves via domestic taxes. The Government said it would taper down and end Revenue Support Grant, and repatriate all business rates back to the council. That hasn’t really started and NCC coped by raising council tax each year by two percent.”

Inspector Max Caller had another view, however. “During the period under review NCC’s performance has been characterised by three elements: poor budget management, the ‘Next Generation Council’, and a claim that NCC was specifically and unusually disadvantaged by the funding formula.

“NCC has the fastest growing tax base of any county council. During this period NCC’s tax base has grown by an impressive 11%. The comparable figures for England and all county councils are 8% and 7% respectively.”

In a devastating conclusion, the report said: “In essence, no effective work had been done by NCC to turn a radical vision of a future operating model for a County Council into a practical system which recognised the need to join up services and ensure effective controls for the use of
public money.”

Giovanni Bernardi
December 2018