North Yorkshire leaders at odds over use of taxpayer resources to promote unitary authority vision

Concerns have been raised about North Yorkshire County Council using taxpayer resources to push its vision of creating a single unitary authority in a potential breach of the Government’s code of practice.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has learned that last week six of the county’s district councils took the matter of North Yorkshire’s use of council staff and social media platforms to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG).

North Yorkshire County Council ‘s leader has denied any wrongdoing and says the authority has stuck to the guidance.

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North Yorkshire county council leader Carl Les. Pic by Gary Longbottom

The ministry has now confirmed it has written to all of the parties involved in local government reorganisation “reminding” them to abide by the regulations.

The row comes after an eight-week consultation began into a proposed reorganisation in the county that will see seven district councils scrapped and replaced with a unitary structure.

North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) has submitted a proposal for one authority covering the whole county, while six of district leaders want two authorities that split the county in half with York merged into an authority with Ryedale, Selby and Scarborough.

Harrogate, Craven, Richmondshire and Hambleton, which is not supporting any option and objects to the reorganisation, would make up the other council.

The current row relates to the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity which guides councils on how to handle their communications.

Within the code there is a section on objectivity which states that “local authorities should not use public funds to mount publicity campaigns whose primary purpose is to persuade the public to hold a particular view on a question of policy”.

The six district councils proposing the so-called East/West split sought clarification from the Government on whether the communications from North Yorkshire County Council in the first week of the consultation process breached this guidance.

These included a press release issued by the authority, a press conference organised with involvement of county council communications staff, social media posts and comments in a residents’ newsletter by county chief executive Richard Flinton.

In the email message Mr Flinton concluded with: “[our proposal] will accelerate recovery, avoid unnecessary costs and the disruption of key services at a time when they are needed most.”

In a separate press release issued by the county, Cllr Carl Les, the leader of the council, is quoted as saying that “like many people and businesses, we have grave concerns” about the districts’ plan for the East/West split.

The former leader of Ryedale District Council, Cllr Keane Duncan, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that his understanding was that councils can promote the consultation, but not one bid over another.

Cllr Duncan, who resigned from his role last week in opposition to a council tax rise, said: “We had an email that was sent to all councillors saying that we cannot use any council resources to promote one option over another.

“In the eyes of the public we have to be fully transparent and fully balanced with our communication. The districts have complied fully with that interpretation.”

Richard Cooper, the Conservative leader of Harrogate Council, confirmed that the district councils, through their chief executives, had “asked for clarification on the rules” of the consultation from MHCLG.

He said: “As I understand councils cannot use their own facilities, online facilities or social media to promote a particular cause now that the consultation has started. It extends to their own staff.”

Cllr Cooper said that personal views are free to be expressed but that there had to be rules on how that was done.

He added: “I think it would be unrealistic not to expect chief executives not to have an opinion or leaders to have an opinion for that matter.

“It is about using taxpayer-funded facilities to promote a particular view.

“I think it is a concern for everybody if taxpayers’ money is being used to explicitly promote one cause over another.”

The allegations were put to North Yorkshire County Council.

In response Cllr Carl Les, leader of North Yorkshire County Council said: “We, along with other councils, have publicised the Government’s consultation on local government reorganisation and have outlined our case for change.

“As we have consistently said, it is now for the Government to decide, based on their examination of the proposals and feedback from the consultation.”

Cllr Les added: “I maintain that we have followed the code of publicity.”

A spokesman for MHCLG declined to comment on NYCC’s publicity but told the Local Democracy Reporting Service confirmed that a reminder had been sent to councils in the three areas taking part in consultations, adding: “Officials wrote to all the principal councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset reminding them of the requirement to have regard to the provisions in the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity.”

A decision on the future of local government in North Yorkshire will be taken by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick later this year.