Concerns about gender inequality, lack of transparency and placing power in the hands of a few all mixed to sour the harmony of the first ever North Northamptonshire Shadow Authority meeting.
The key players were all elected at last night’s (June 4) virtual meeting which was broadcast via YouTube to watching residents.
The shadow authority has been set up to pave the way and make decisions for the new North Northamptonshire unitary which will effectively merge the existing local councils in Corby, Kettering, East Northants and Wellingborough and take on the services currently provided by the Northamptonshire County Council authority which has been battling along since its financial collapse in 2018.
The unitary is due to be created in April next year and the shadow authority will be tasked with making key decisions about matters such as setting the budget for the new unitary, future venues for services, governance arrangements and council tax levels.
To kick off the meeting long term Wellingborough Conservative councillor Paul Bell was elected as chairman of the shadow authority. Kettering Council leader Russell Roberts had already been appointed as interim shadow leader by central government and will be deputised by serving Wellingborough leader Martin Griffiths.
Their fellow executive of ten councillors will be Conservative-led and made up of just two Labour councillors from Corby and eight Conservatives.
There will be no Liberal Democrat or Independent voices on the executive as the committee has been created along the lines of the political balance of existing councils.
A number of councillors from all parties voiced their concerns about how things were shaping up.
Conservative Cllr Helen Harrison who represents the Fineshade ward in East Northants suggested there was little ability for the backbench councillors to represent their constituents.
She said: “It seems to me that as things stand members who are not on the executive committee or the overview and scrutiny committee will in reality have very little say. The main forum for most members will be the three council meeting scheduled after this one. By this point the decisions will have already been made and it is likely members will be whipped to vote alongside party lines.”
And Corby’s Labour Cllr Judy Caine, who represents Oakley Vale, had concerns about the male dominated make-up of the executive – which will have the power to make the key decisions of how the authority will run. Corby’s Cllr Jean Addison and East Northants’ Wendy Brackenbury are the only two women on the powerful executive.
She said: “ I’m very concerned about that. I think it should be looked at and addressed at the earliest opportunity.”
Corby Liberal Democrat Chris Stanbra said he felt the shadow constitution was a missed opportunity to put something more radical in place. He expressed concerns about the omission of a number of actions usually open to councillors.
He said: “With motions curtailed, meetings curtailed, challenge curtailed and scrutiny curtailed, the upshot is democratic accountability curtailed. We must do better.”
And Kettering’s Labour leader Cllr Mick Scrimshaw wanted to make some amendments to the constitution but was prevented from doing so as senior officer Theresa Grant said it could not be done at this meeting and would have to wait until next time.
After the meeting Cllr Scrimshaw said he was disappointed his call for change had fallen.
He said: “This was a genuine opportunity for all of us collectively to have made a statement about improving things.”
Leader Russell Roberts made a short speech to the councillors assembled online.
He said: “In the north we have always embraced growth and change as a way of delivering better outcomes for our residents. We are now charged with building a strong framework which will deliver our new authority on April 1 next year in good order.
“I know we can do this, especially if we come together as one team with an open mind and I look forward to working with you all to this end.”
Public services have been cut back in Northamptonshire in the wake of the county council’s cash running out. It had to sell of its new headquarters, staff went without a payrise for two years and key services such as highways maintenance, trading standards, public transport were cut back to make the financial books balance.
This has led to much public disquiet and calls for change. However due to last month’s cancelled local elections the old guard of councillors remains in the driving seat for the new unitary authority.
The reorganisation is expected to cost Northamptonshire tax payers £55m.