The case for unitary local government reorganisation in North Yorkshire in path to devolution - Simon Edwards

The phrase “once in a generation” feels like a tired cliché, but when describing the opportunity to secure a devolution deal in North Yorkshire, it is certainly apt.
Is a unitary authority for North Yorkshire the way forward?Is a unitary authority for North Yorkshire the way forward?
Is a unitary authority for North Yorkshire the way forward?

This paper has championed the transformative effect devolution could have for North Yorkshire; not only in giving communities a greater set of powers to shape their own destiny, but ensuring that like other parts of Yorkshire, they can ‘level up’ the gap between parts of the county that feel left behind the south of England.

But in order to do so, the Government has been clear that a pre-requisite to secure devolution for North Yorkshire would be to streamline local government.

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Ministers then issued a formal invitation for the councils in North Yorkshire to submit proposals, alongside those in Somerset and Cumbria, recognising a consensus for change.

Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network.Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network.
Simon Edwards, director of the County Councils Network.

Over my time at the County Councils Network (CCN) I can honestly say that nothing gets pulses racing in local government quite like reorganisation. Putting all the inevitable noise aside, there is so much riding on the outcome that it is imperative the right decision is made.

As local residents consider the options in front of them, it is important there is an evidence-based discussion on how we take the very best of existing county and district councils and establish a new council equipped to take on the challenges of the next decade.

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Over the summer, CCN has produced a raft of evidence that supports the ambitions of North Yorkshire to follow in the footsteps of areas right across the country in establishing a single unitary authority to achieve this. Firstly, our independent analysis by PriceWaterhouseCoopers backs up the county council’s case that their proposal can maximise the financial benefits of reform, while minimising the costs to local taxpayers. A single unitary would deliver double the yearly savings compared to splitting the county in two, by reducing the cost of establishing the new council by almost half (47 per cent).

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With the pandemic exacerbating the financial plight facing local government, we simply cannot afford to settle for an option that does not deliver the level of savings needed for the county to weather the economic storm ahead and protect vital local services. But we also must look beyond the bottom line to the impact on services: the very things councils exist to provide.

North Yorkshire’s children’s and adults social care services are widely regarded to be amongst the best in the entire country. Our research has shown that creating two new councils would split these two vital departments in half, fragmenting staff, resources, and service models that have taken years to develop. Why risk destabilising, and potentially damaging, high-quality services for higher costs and complexity? The same would apply to the county council’s large-scale departments such as transport and infrastructure: potentially creating an economic divide between low-growth and high-growth parts of the county.

In contrast, our work at CCN has shown that a single county unitary does not just avoid these risks, it provides real opportunity to drive forward a true community care integration agenda with local health partners, improving care services for the most vulnerable. A single unitary council would have the necessary size to support local economies and businesses across rural and urban areas to recover from the pandemic and drive forward the devolution and levelling up agendas quickly.

By working in tandem with, rather than taking over, the city of York, a combined authority with a mayor could be established quickly. This could unlock the levers to address the economic challenges created by coronavirus, while providing a clear point of contact for residents and business.

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The benefits of reform will not come at a cost to democracy and representation. It will give people a single, unified voice for an entire county and a fresh sense of purpose, while giving the space for the most local tier of local government – town and parish councils – to flourish. If the county’s bid to become a unitary is successful, then I believe there will be very few regrets in five years’ time. Even those most opposed to reorganisations in areas as diverse as Durham to Wiltshire would not turn back the clock on their county unitaries.

We need to look forward and grasp this once in a generation opportunity for North Yorkshire.

Simon Edwards is director of the County Councils Network.

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