North Yorkshire district councils pay consultants £175,000 for devolution plan

Battle lines are being drawn ahead of a government-imposed reorganisation of local government in North Yorkshire and York, with district and borough councils ploughing £175,000 of taxpayers' money to employ consultants to come up with proposals to counter the county council's arguments.

The coalition of authorities have agreed the “fighting fund” to pay consultants to draw up plans for alternatives to North Yorkshire County Council's preferred option to retain its boundaries in a single authority.

The county council's leadership believes creating a single authority on its current boundaries will create "very considerable savings", which will help it continue delivering services following very challenging times financially for local government and new pressures brought with Covid-19.

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A meeting of the county council heard Selby district councillor John McCartney state devolution was meant to be about handing "power to the people".

He asked whether there had been any indication from government that people would be given any meaningful say in the form that devolution takes, such as by plebiscite, or if it would be a "top-down reorganisation, the back of a fag packet stitch-up".

County council leader Councillor Carl Les said he believed North Yorkshire's residents would have a lot more say in the forthcoming process than there was in 1973, when the two-tier system was created.

He said: "Different councils will have different opinions. We might be able to find some consensus between us, but if not we will develop competing proposals, but I hope they won't be viewed as hostile. There should be no acrimony in this. It's much more than just a fag packet exercise.

Ribblesdale in North Yorkshire, where a devolution row is brewing. Pic: James Hardisty

The county council is pointing towards the costs of running seven district and one county council across the 3,341sq mile area as well as arguing to run effective services over the huge expanse, which includes two national parks, you need a critical mass of population, and the county's 602,000 residents is an "entirely effective population size".

Cllr Les said: "Durham is a little bit smaller than North Yorkshire with a population of 530,000 and there's nobody there saying let's go back to small districts, let's cut Durham in half. They are seeing that's an effective way to deliver local services.

"In terms of sheer numbers, Leeds has a population of more than 800,000, so a population of 600,000 is a very good size for a council going forward. Smaller unitaries are being really financially challenged at the moment."

He said while the District Councils Network highlighted that it delivered services over "the final mile", Cllr Les said the county council did so "over the final metre".

Cllr Les said: "You don't get much more local than a pothole being repaired outside your house or people going into somebody's house to deliver homecare."

While Liberal Democrat-run City of York Council has made it clear it wants to retain the same boundaries, senior district and borough council figures said views emerging from those authorities include including it in a unitary authority extending to the north of Whitby or adding Selby district to it.

A number of the district and boroughs want to see England's largest county split into two, and say North Yorkshire is just too big.

The second-tier authorities have suggested numerous different formats, including a north-south split, while others have insisted the district boundaries should remain the same.

Cllr Les said: "This is not the time for maximum disruption. This is the time to look for the maximum benefit that capacity can bring the county recovering from Covid."