Claim vulnerable children could 'fall through the gaps' without unitary model in North Yorkshire branded 'scaremongering' by council leader

Claims that vulnerable children could fall through the gaps if North Yorkshire does not adopt a unitary council model have been described as "scaremongering" by a district council leader.

Ryedale council leader Keane Duncan criticised Professor Maggie Atkinson after she raised concerns over the proposed creation of two authorities in the county as part of the devolution process.

After being told by Ministers that the two-tier system of local government must end, North Yorkshire County Council favours a single authority being set up while district leaders are pushing for two authorities either side of the A1.

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Professor Atkinson, the independent chair of the North Yorkshire Children’s Safeguarding Board, and Sir Martin Narey, chair of the North Yorkshire Coast Opportunity Area, both threw their weight behind the single unitary plan last week.

The Barnsley-born former Children's Commissioner for England told The Yorkshire Post that if two or more unitary authorities were created, it would mean appointing new heads of service and splitting departments.

She said: “I can see no sense, not least about expense in this situation, but very importantly in terms of the ongoing quality of service, particularly for vulnerable children and to vulnerable families.”

Prof Atkinson added: “If you then split what you’re doing, what you inevitably have to do is, for example, decide who gets the children’s home, who gets which social workers, who gets which senior staff, and what happens to county-wide resources that have to be split in however many different directions, all of which is a massive distraction from offering services as offered now.

“The gaps will be created by people having to split their time between doing the day job and managing massive change, and uncertainty and potentially instability in their own jobs and in those of others."

Ryedale council leader Keane Duncan

But speaking on behalf of the seven district council leaders in North Yorkshire, Coun Duncan accused Prof Atkinson of "spreading fear by using vulnerable children", in what he said was "a new low in the campaign for a North Yorkshire ‘super council’.

He said: “Not only is it unwise for Professor Atkinson to become embroiled in the hottest of political issues, it’s extremely premature to do so before anyone has published their proposals.

“We’d like to invite the professor and the Children’s Safeguarding Board to remain impartial throughout this process and meet with us to give feedback on our proposal when it is complete.

“Our aim is to ensure the very best children’s services, not just for North Yorkshire but for City of York too, where Ofsted has identified areas for improvement.

“We should be sharing best practice across the whole area, listening to our parents and children, and most importantly, reassuring rather than scaremongering.”

In response, Prof Atkinson said she was "disappointed" by the comments of the councillors and that they had "chosen to do so in somewhat personal terms".

She said: "Given he is also a county councillor, Mr Duncan in particular will be aware I do not work for the county council, or any other safeguarding partnership organisation.

"By law, I am required to be independent and questioning, a status I go to some lengths to maintain.

"The same law requires that as independent scrutineer of the partnership, in which role I chair the executive, I make clear and when necessary public judgement calls on matters that may impact on children's wellbeing. This is one such circumstance.

"I can speak for neither with authority, but imagine that neither Sir Martin Narey as independent Scarborough Opportunity Area chair, nor Professor Sue Procter the independent chair of the county's Safeguarding Adults Board, consider they work or speak for the County Council.

"That their stated advice aligns with mine indicates that they have read the evidence, and as their respective roles require, also given their advice."

Leaders in North Yorkshire have asked for £2.4bn in investment as part of its devolution deal with the Government which would see the election of a metro mayor like in Greater Manchester or South Yorkshire.

But Local Government Minister Simon Clarke says such a deal can only go-ahead if local government is "streamlined" from the current system of a county council and seven districts.

Under North Yorkshire County Council's proposals for a single authority - with City of York Council remaining untouched - town and parish councillors would get more powers and funding if they want them.

The two areas currently without a town or parish council, Harrogate town and Scarborough town, would also be supported to establish one or more town or parish councils, if that is what local people want.

The county council says local organisations would also be given a louder voice via 25 'community networks' based around market town areas as drivers of renewal and innovation.

And area constituency committees would oversee their local areas, champion their cause, strengthen relationships with their MPs and make important decisions locally on things including planning and licensing.

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James Mitchinson