North Yorkshire County Council: Marking one year of the largest local authority in the country

The leader of the largest local authority in the country by area has been reflecting on the first anniversary of the founding of North Yorkshire Council.

The authority was set up on April Fool’s Day last year, absorbing the functions of North Yorkshire County Council, and several district and borough councils, including Harrogate Borough Council, Richmondshire District Council and Scarborough Borough Council.

Whereas previously services were divided into two tiers - with the county council looking after social care and highways for example, and the lower tiers looking after most planning matters and parks, among many other areas, now all matters are the business of the one authority - North Yorkshire Council.

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The move was long criticised in some quarters, with fears of a democratic deficit and overinflated savings ambitions forewarned.

North Yorkshire County Council was created a year ago todayNorth Yorkshire County Council was created a year ago today
North Yorkshire County Council was created a year ago today

But for Coun Carl Les, leader of the fledgling authority, while there have been plenty of teething problems, ‘unknown unknowns’ and challenging headwinds, the end of year report is an overwhelmingly positive one.

He said: “Talking to leaders of fellow large councils around the country, you realise we are in an enviable position and it’s all down to us being able to reap the benefits of local government reorganisation.

“We’ve been under the same challenges as the whole of the local government sector.

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“There’s rising demand, especially for children’s services, children’s social care, and special Educational Needs and for a county like North Yorkshire where we’re a rural area there’s always travelling involved, the home to school transport budget has certainly got larger.

“There are certainly some severe challenges there.

“But our benefit, which really crystallised as we started to set the budget, was that we’re just starting to reap the benefits of local government reorganisation.

“When we started planning for the budget we were anticipating being about £30m in the red but actually when we looked at the savings that we were able to make we got that down to about £1m.”

Perhaps the most worrying curveball in the first year came in the shape of the collapse of Scarborough’s Alpamare water park - and the subsequent realisation of the new council’s level of exposure to the fallout.

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Coun Les said: “It was disappointing. Hugely disappointing. We’ve picked up some legacy problems and Alpamare isn’t the only one, we have the issue with the Harrogate Convention Centre.

“But it’s disappointing that some of the decisions that we have inherited have not been as good as they might have been, and the new council is going to have to pick up the pieces.

“It’s the new council that’s going to have to inevitably pay for some of those bad decisions.

“I think skeletons in the closet are probably time limited. I think you’ll probably find your skeletons within a short period of time at the start of the new council.

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“I don’t expect there’ll be big skeletons to pop out in 10 years’ time.”

Among the key trepidations voiced by those opposed to the new council system were a perceived erosion of democratic decision making, and a concern that consultants had overpromised on the amount of savings which would become available

Coun Les said the true figure of savings would likely never be known, in part because service pressures were never going to be the same as when predictions were made.

But he said regardless, some of the known savings had allowed the headroom to protect services in other areas.

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He said: “For instance we’ve saved three quarters of a million pounds annually in the number of members (councillors) that we have.

“I know some people argue that that’s the end of democracy as we know it, but I have to say I’ve never known anyone say that the solution to our problems is to have more politicians.

“Also, we’ve saved £5m a year restructuring the various management teams. We always knew we would only have one chief executive, one chief finance officer etc.

“We’ve now restructured the senior management teams below the top tier and we’ve managed to save £4m in that respect.

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“The biggest savings have come from procurement - how we actually buy public services - and because we’re more efficient because we’re joining things up together to bid for and acquire things and we’re making significant savings on procurement.”

With attention now shifting to the council’s land footprint - and with it its carbon footprint too - the leader says it is hoped the savings will continue to alleviate budget pressures in years to come as well, at a time when local authorities need all the budgetary help they can get.

And while the first year hasn’t all been plain sailing, Coun Les said on reflection he is more convinced than ever that the decision to create a single council was the right one

“We’ve made mistakes at times, of course. For me the test isn’t how many mistakes we have made, it’s about how quickly we get on top of those mistakes and check out whether it’s a genuine error or something systemic.

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“It has been a challenge to take eight councils, with different policies for different things and then to merge them into one. It has been a challenge. We always knew that.

“But I think it’s gone remarkably well.”

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