Plans for new unitary council gather speed

After delays caused by the pandemic, timescales have now been finalised for East Northamptonshire District Council to merge with other district councils to form one of two unitary councils in Northampstonshire.

Current district and county councillors have already formed the Shadow North Northamptonshire Council, which will continue the transition until elections in April 2021 elect new councillors to the unitary authority.

In the new authority, services provided by the district councils will merge with services provided by the county council. Planning, housing, environmental and health services – previously provided by the district councils – will merge with adult and children’s social services, highways and trading standards – previously the remit of the county council.

“The unitary will be more transparent and residents will have a clear way forward in terms of getting advice and support,” said Annabel de Capell Brooke, Northamptonshire County Councillor for Oundle. “Nothing is more frustrating for a resident to contact the district council only to be told that they need to contact county. Time wasting for them and pointless.”

“This should allow for some savings in present overhead costs and also better career prospects for officers in one structure: this would be good for staff morale,” said Rupert Reichhold, one of three district councillors for Oundle.

Asked what changes an Oundle resident can expect to see day-to-day, Councillor Reichhold said: “Very little: to the extent people see or meet council officers at all, they are likely to see and meet the same officers, with letter headings showing the North Northamptonshire Council logo.”

Councillor de Capell Brooke was also positive about what the changes would lead to. “Clearer points of contact and responsibility to make access to services much easier for residents,” she said. “The process should allow for a fundamental shake-up of some potentially outdated ways of doing things.”

Jake Vowles, the Independent district councillor for Oundle, took a very different view. He said: “I have consistently objected to this interference by central government. What we had in East Northamptonshire worked well for all our residents.”

He put the blame on the county council’s financial problems, and sees no real benefit for a rural area like Oundle. “It is clear that control of this rural area will be amalgamated with the urban conurbations of Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough,” he said. “What changes in emphasis this will bring I do not know but I am afraid they will not be to our benefit.”

The move was deemed necessary in 2017 after central government inspectors found evidence of financial mismanagement at county level. The national government stepped in to appoint officers to aid the transition and put the legislation in place to enable the move, which passed the Houses of Parliament in February 2020.

Councillor Jake Vowles was aggrieved by the government’s handling of the matter. “The way that central government overruled the wishes of the seven district and borough councils was shameful,” he said.

However, Councillor de Capell Brooke has been impressed by proactive national government at the local level. “Our MP, Tom, reacts and responds positively and promptly to local needs and requirements,” she said. “He has demonstrated that he will do whatever possible at a parliamentary level. This is no more apparent in Oundle with him seeing the pressing need for the North Bridge works to be done.”

This debate comes at a time when there is greater concern over the government’s commitment to devolution. The government’s proposed white paper on devolution, which was to be announced in the summer, was pushed back to September and has now been “put away in a drawer”, according to the Local Government Chronicle.

Councillor de Capell Brooke was hopeful about a new chapter in local government. “The new structures are well thought out and locals have been listened to. We all need to embrace this as a very positive move forward.”

Ned Chatterton
1 December 2020