Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick will next year take a decision which will have far-reaching consequences for the local council services used by people across North Yorkshire every day.
The Conservative Minister has asked political leaders in England's largest county to submit bids on a new system of local government to replace the current two-tier arrangements.
The county council has submitted plans for a single unitary authority covering all of North Yorkshire while district council leaders propose creating two councils of similar size either side of the A1.
The Government, which said in July that North Yorkshire’s two-tier system of government would have to end as a condition of the devolution process, will now evaluate the rival bids before launching a consultation next year.
And whichever outcome is chosen it will mean a dramatic shake-up of local politics in North Yorkshire and the city of York, which could be subsumed into a wider authority with Selby, Ryedale and Scarborough under one of the proposals.
Currently there are seven district councils in North Yorkshire providing services such as housing, planning and leisure, while the county council provides other such as education, transport and social services.
City of York is already a unitary authority so provides all local services. Under the county’s proposals, a single unitary authority would be created for all of North Yorkshire and York would remain untouched.
The district councils have put forward a counter proposal where a council would be created for Harrogate, Craven, Richmondshire and Hambleton and a separate organisation created to serve York, Selby, Ryedale and Scarborough. If a devolution deal is agreed with government, the councils would sit under a mayoral combined authority.
Here The Yorkshire Post examines the two rival bids.
With town halls around the country forced to cut huge chunks from their budgets in recent years, both sides emphasise how much their solutions could save the taxpayer.
According to the county council, “a single unitary authority for North Yorkshire will require fewer councillors and senior managers, smaller support functions, fewer offices and IT systems than the current or alternative structures”.
It says replacing the two-tier system with a county-wide authority excluding York would deliver at least £31.9m in savings a year, or as much as £68.5m if combined an “ambitious transformation programme” which “would enable the new council to refocus its operating model around its key priorities and outcomes”.
The one-off costs of such a process are estimated at between £18m and £38m, with the money paid back in little over a year.
Its report suggests that additional costs and complexity would come with the splitting up of other services, such as the ‘TUPE’ regulations that protect the 15,000 staff who would be changing employer.
Meanwhile, district leaders say the greatest potential for long-term efficiencies comes with a shake-up involving all councils in York and North Yorkshire.
And their report says the annual savings from an east/west model are estimated to be between £33m and £56m.
It adds: “Any form of local government reorganisation will be complex, but given the level of efficiencies achievable from this model, the payback period for council taxpayers is expected to be within two years.”
In terms of the size of population it serves, how big is too big for a new council?
Simon Clarke, then a Local Government Minister, gave leaders a hint in July when he said unitary councils should serve a population which “as a rule of thumb are expected to be substantially in excess of 300,000 to 400,000”.
The two-council solution put forward by the district authorities divides North Yorkshire and York into areas serving populations of 465,000 in the east and 363,000 in the west.
Their report says they“have similar population sizes, Gross Value Added (GVA) per head, total GVA and tax base ratios”. It adds: “This ensures a balance of economies between east and west, which will maximise future economic potential.”
But the county council says its proposal for an authority serving a population of more than 600,000 people, has the ability to “improve outcomes at an impactful scale”.
Its report adds: “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of resilience and operating at scale in order to provide a co-ordinated response to crises. The need for critical mass is even greater for North Yorkshire given the disperse nature of the rural population.
“For example, North Yorkshire County Council was able to mobilise a rapid digital response to COVID-19 and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week for many months.”
The county council’s report adds: “Smaller authorities covering just a portion of the North Yorkshire geography would not have access to such levels of resource and capacity.”
Currently across the seven district councils, county council and City of York Council, there are 348 elected councillors representing residents’ interests.
The number is certain to fall whichever scenario is chosen by the Government as a single unitary structure replaces the two-tier system.
Under an east/west split, district leaders say there would be between 154 and 197 councillors, each representing between 3,000 and 4,000 electors each.
Eight ‘locality committees’ across the whole of North Yorkshire, made up of parish and town council and community representatives, would have the “authority and budget to make decisions at a local level, and so would be responsive to local needs”.
A county-wide authority would have fewer councillors still, with just 90 representing around 6,850 residents each and each serving on one of six area committees which would match the areas served by North Yorkshire’s MPs.
But to do this would require changes to the current ward boundaries and the county council wants to work with the Boundary Commission to put in places appropriate wards before any election. If this wasn’t possible, in the interim there may have to be a solution based on two councillors for each of the existing 72 county wards.
The county council also wants to postpone its elections from May 2021 to May 2022 regardless of whether the new unitary authority commences on April 2022 or 2023, so the electorate “can be clear what organisation they are electing members to serve”.
What happens to York?
Whichever scenario is chosen will dictate whether York remains a city council by itself or part of a larger authority serving Selby, Ryedale and Scarborough.
The city council - run by a Liberal Democrat and Green coalition - has firmly expressed the desire to keep its current structure untouched and has been backed by grandees such as former Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable and former BBC director general Greg Dyke.
The district councils’ report describes York as a “vital economic centre in North Yorkshire with the potential to drive the growth of the sub-regional economy.”
By linking it up with other areas east of the A1, it is claimed, and co-ordinating strategies, investment and transport schemes “will enhance business growth in York and its surrounding areas, and be of benefit to the region as a whole”.
Making it part of a wider area is also described as “a solution to York’s constrained land supply by enabling planning to take place over a wider footprint”.
The county council says York plays “a key role in the economic make-up of the North Yorkshire hinterland but also that there are clear differences between York and the county of North Yorkshire”.
It identifies possible areas of co-ordination between York and North Yorkshire such as healthcare, responding to emergencies and Covid-19, strategic planning and housing. City council leader Keith Aspden said grouping York with Ryedale and Scarborough would ignore its “economic geography” which looks west towards Leeds and Bradford.
Both sides presenting to the Government have taken pains to emphasis the amount of support they enjoy among local groups.
Two councils for North Yorkshire split along east/west lines has been backed by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, organisers of the Great Yorkshire Show, and the Bettys and Taylors Group, which makes Yorkshire Tea, among others.
Clare Morrow, the chair of the board at Bettys and Taylors Group, said: “On balance we think the more proportionate split of the county that the east/west model offers is more likely to enable a balanced approach to be taken, provided sufficient investment and support is given to the two new authorities.”
Bosses at Flamingo Land and the Black Sheep Brewery have thrown their support behind a single unitary authority. Flamingo Land CEO Gordon Gibb said: “As one of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions, we know the value of the North Yorkshire brand and its importance to the regional economy. We continue to invest in the future of our business and see the single unitary authority as essential for developing the next generation of talent for our workforce.”
The county council’s document includes support from health bosses such as the chief executive of the Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust as well as Isabelle Trowler, the Chief Social Worker for England. But the districts’ proposal is backed by North Yorkshire names including Michelin-starred chef Andrew Pern and MPs Julian Sturdy and Andrew Jones.
A large part of the argument put forward by the county council is that “safer, stronger and more joined up services” can be provided in a single unitary than with multiple authorities.
Its report says: “Administering services in North Yorkshire, and potentially across the City of York, would add layers of unnecessary complexity and create significantly more disruption to existing high performing services and 245 maintained schools.”
It adds that splitting up high-performing county services, such as children’s and adults’ services, “would disrupt current ways of working, require division of in-house provision, migration of service users and schools alongside the renegotiation of provider contracts across significant areas of spend”.
But according to the districts, an east/west model is “large enough to deliver efficiencies and strategic vision, but local enough to stay connected and meet the needs and priorities of local people and businesses”.
With two authorities, it says, services that are currently delivered across the whole of North Yorkshire “will continue to be delivered by their locality teams with opportunities taken to maximise whole-systems thinking through integrated delivery with district services and with other public and voluntary and community sector organisations.”
It suggests that on public health, a single function across the new combined authority “will help to drive integrated ways of working across North Yorkshire and York”.