Plans to ‘revolutionise’ grassroots democracy in North Yorkshire expected to move forward tomorrow

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PLANS to revolutionise a “building block of local democracy” that have come under fire from elected members in some of the remotest parts of North Yorkshire are expected to be passed by senior councillors tomorrow.

The Yorkshire Post reported last year on North Yorkshire County Council’s plans for the “revolution” of the authority’s area committees, which would see the number scaled down from seven to six to tie in with parliamentary constituencies rather than district council boundaries.

A report prepared ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of the authority’s Executive says the plan to create Constituency Committees would make the six groups more similar in size, as the current committees represent vastly different numbers - from 52,000 to 157,000.

A further “advantage” of the proposed new structure would be to encourage local MPs to attend the meetings so there can be “the best democratic representation for their communities”.

However, the report acknowledged “some disadvantages” for four areas - Boroughbridge; Hertford and Cayton; Lower Nidderdale and Bishop Monkton; and Pannal and Lower Wharfedale - which would be split across two areas under the new structure.

Critics of the plan include Independent leader and Upper Dales councillor John Blackie, who branded the proposals “ludicrous”. He said North Yorkshire’s Independent members were “diametrically opposed” to the changes, which he claimed was “political gerrymandering” to put each committee under the chairmanship of a Conservative councillor, and that the strength of feeling among the Independents was so strong they had made the “very rare” decision to join together to oppose the plan once it is put to the Full Council in May.

Coun Blackie said: “District and Borough Council boundaries were not drawn on a map of the County by accident or by the Boundary Commission, but evolved over the centuries as a reflection of this diversity at community and environmental street level.”

He said the plans for the Constituency Committee for Richmond, which would include the current Richmondshire Area Committee patch, would lose “local style, substance and objective” as it would now cover an area stretching 70 miles from east to west. He fears both residents and councillors will no longer attend the meetings, where local issues including healthcare, transport and policing are discussed, should they no longer be held locally.

North Yorkshire leader Coun Carl Les said the plans, which if adopted in May would be implemented “almost immediately”, were designed to further empower local members, introduce an element of fairness in numbers, and also save money as it aims to cut £19.5m in this year’s budget.

He told The Yorkshire Post: “There is a cost saving, of around 15 per cent, and members’ services should not be excluded from cost savings.

“The venues of the meetings will be chosen to fit the agenda items that are on it, and the fact that all the chairmanships will become Conservatives is a reflection of the current make up of the council - where 55 out of 72 seats are Conservative.

“John [Blackie] has been good in the last 17 years for putting things on the agenda at Area Committee - some very local, some more wider - and I hope he doesn’t withdraw from engaging with the committees in future.”