Leader condemned amid fears for shared services

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A COUNCIL leader has been accused of undermining the future of a Yorkshire district amid fears a pioneering project to share key civic services which has saved more than £2.5m is doomed.

A bitter political row has erupted over the future of the scheme which has seen services such as IT provision and waste collections shared between the councils covering Richmondshire and Hambleton.

Tory councillors in Richmondshire have expressed concerns the authority’s Independent leader, John Blackie, is not fully behind the project, which has brought £2.6m in savings over a three-year period.

Speculation has been mounting over the agreement’s future after Hambleton District Council announced on Tuesday that it was ending an arrangement where a chief executive oversaw both authorities.

A new management team will be dedicated solely to Hambleton after the former chief executive, Peter Simpson, stood down following complaints over his “abusive and dominating” behaviour.

The leader of Richmondshire District Council’s Conservative group, Coun Fleur Butler, has called for an emergency meeting which is due to be held in Richmond on May 28 to discuss the situation.

She has urged Coun Blackie and Hambleton District Council’s leader Neville Huxtable to provide written assurances that they are both committed to the shared services arrangement.

Coun Butler said: “We are concerned Coun Blackie’s heart is not in sharing services with Hambleton. The agreement has ensured that Richmondshire District Council has not gone bankrupt, at a time when we are having to make major savings. Coun Blackie should not be playing politics with Richmondshire’s future.”

Coun Blackie launched a staunch defence of his handling of the situation, and maintained he is committed to shared services. However, he stressed Hambleton District Council is “not the only show in town”, and informal talks are under way with other local authorities about sharing services.

“I completely and utterly reject suggestions that I have been political about this,” Coun Blackie said. “The Conservative group appears intent on politicising the issue, without any regard for the council’s staff who are faced with a very difficult and uncertain time.”

Mr Simpson’s role is being taken on by Philip Morton, who was previously Hambleton’s deputy chief executive, and a management review is underway at Richmondshire. But Mr Simpson will remain an employee of Hambleton District Council for the next 12 months and will be paid about £62,000 without having any dealings with the authority’s staff. He will instead work on projects for the District Councils Network.

Coun Huxtable stressed his commitment to the shared services agreement, but yesterday declined to comment on the affairs of Richmondshire District Council.