Call for delay to 'undemocratic' Northamptonshire council reorganisation amid coronavirus emergency

Labour's Cllr Mick Scrimshaw says current plans for unitary reorganisation are weighted towards the ruling Conservative party.

By Sarah Ward
Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 10:08 am
Updated Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 10:09 am
It looks likely that in the absence of May elections the existing council leaders (pictured above) will play a key part in making decisions for the two new unitary councils.
It looks likely that in the absence of May elections the existing council leaders (pictured above) will play a key part in making decisions for the two new unitary councils.

A prominent Labour councillor has called for the Northamptonshire unitary council creation to be delayed as he says the Government’s newly suggested arrangement is undemocratic and weighted towards the Conservative Party.

Yesterday (March 30) new plans for the unitary reorganisation were revealed which will see decisions for the two new super councils which will be created in April next year, made by a select team of existing leading councillors.

The elections scheduled for this May to two new shadow authorities that will replace the existing eight councils in Northamptonshire were scrapped last month due to the coronavirus emergency. The shadow councils would have made decisions about the new unitary authorities and set the budget for next April.

Cllr Scrimshaw, who is chair of the county council's scrutiny committee, says the new arrangement is heavily weighted in favour of the ruling Conservative party.

But now Government is set to take the decision to still create the shadow council, but with existing councillors and also appoint the leaders.

Cllr Mick Scrimshaw, who is both a county councillor and a Kettering borough councillor says the new way the government is proposing to set up the new councils is wrong and wants a delay.

He said: “It looks like the new unitary council for North Northamptonshire will start as planned in April 2021. This will be one month before elections for that council and will mean that all decisions about how that council will operate, including the setting of its first year’s budget, will be taken by the existing councils, who will now form a ‘shadow’ council, for the next year, and not members elected to the new one.

The Government has also indicated that it will choose who the leader and deputy leader of that ‘shadow’ council will be, and there will be a decision-making cabinet committee made up of two members from each of the existing councils (presumably the current leaders and deputy leaders from across the area).

This is clearly undemocratic and important decisions will be taken by people who may not even be elected to the new council, but it also poses some very real questions about the transparency of decision making. At the moment we are in the middle of a national emergency the scale of which is unprecedented, and nobody has any idea how long it will last.

Important decisions about the new council will therefore be made by the new shadow council’s cabinet behind closed doors (there is no chance of any public meetings currently), and at a time when all resources are needed to deal with the current crisis.

I cannot see how our stretched local councils will be able to deal with the current crisis properly and at the same time involve themselves in the mammoth job of setting up the arrangements for a brand new council.

As elections have been delayed for a year, then the start of the new council should also be delayed by a further year, or at the very least until we have some idea of how and when we will come out of the current emergency.

It seems to me that the Conservative government’s intent is ensuring that the current local Conservative councillors take all the decisions for the unitary authority despite them not necessarily being elected to be in charge of that council and despite the fact the period they were originally elected for has already long passed.

I recently gave an assurance to the Conservative leader of Kettering Borough that as far as Labour councillors were concerned, party politics has been suspended for the period of the current emergency as all of our collective efforts need to be directed at dealing with the Covid 19 pandemic, but now it seems we will also have to deal with the complicated and important issue of setting up how the new council will provide public services for the future at the same time!

The councils are being scrapped due to the colossal failings at Northamptonshire County Council, which went bust in April 2018 after having been run by a conservative administration since 2009. It was the first local authority to get into such a perilous financial state in decades and as a result services have had to be cut back at the same time as council tax rates increasing.

Local residents have not been able to have their say on who sits on their borough councils since 2015 and due to the coronavirus emergency some councillors will have served for six years without an election.