Councillors charged with making decisions about the huge change to local government in North Northamptonshire say they are being kept in the dark.
There was criticism from all political sides at the second meeting of the North Northamptonshire Joint Committee at Wellingborough Council last night, with accusations of an ‘information void’ and a lack of transparency.
The joint committee – which is made up of 15 councillors from across five councils – has been set up to make decisions about the shadow authority that is due to be created in May next year after local elections.
The joint committee is supposed to ratify the decisions being made by the leaders board, which is made up of the eight political leaders of the district, boroughs and county council.
But at last night’s meeting there was concern that information in the private leaders’ meetings was not being passed down to the eight councils and the councillors who sit on them.
Important information about what has been happening so far in the run-up to unitary was only presented by the new director of transformation Paul Helsby to the joint committee on the night.
Leader of the Labour opposition on Wellingborough Council Andrew Scarborough said there was ‘a massive information deficit’.
He said he felt like he was wading through thick financial fog and ‘that was not a good place to be’.
It is predicted the setting up of the two north unitaries – one in the north and one in the west – will cost more than £40m.
Of that, £1.7m will come from each of the eight councils together with £21m of business rates funding and £6.5m of service transformation funding set aside by Northamptonshire County Council.
The meeting heard that 24 full-time staff have been appointed to roles to work on the move to unitary and there are more than a dozen posts still to be filled.
The chief executives of the councils are heading up different programme teams which will be working on plans to pull together services currently provided separately by the councils.
It is understood that some services could be shared between the two unitaries. Children’s services will also be put into a separate trust and Northamptonshire MPs have said they would like to see adult social care and health joined.
Two members of the public who had wanted to speak at last night’s meeting were not allowed to as they had not made the request within the required time of two full working days.
Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Kettering Chris Nelson, who was denied a question, said: “It is no surprise that the committee was not willing to deviate from proposed rules on public participation, given how committed Conservative council leaders are to minimising public participation on any aspect of the new unitary authority.
“At County Hall, the Conservative leadership has shamefully stamped down on public free speech in meetings and they are now trying to do at the shadow unitary authority. They pretend it is normal to make members of the public ask permission many days in advance, and to ban even councillors from observing unitary authority strategy meetings. Yet Kettering Council has been welcoming public speakers without notice for well over a decade.”
County councillor Victoria Perry also told the meeting that there were a lot of backbenchers at the county council who were feeling ‘very much disengaged from the process’.
Fellow county councillor Jonathan Ekins said there was ‘no transparency’.
In response leader of Corby Council Tom Beattie said that nothing will be decided unless the joint committee agrees to it.
Asked by Corby Cllr Bob Eyles when there would be public meetings to let North Northamptonshire residents know about how the new unitary will work, chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council Theresa Grant said it would be after May when the implementation stage comes in.
Before then councillors will have been elected to the shadow council and will automatically become councillors on the new unitaries which are expected to come into being in April 2021.
The unitary reorganisation has come about as a result of the failings of Northamptonshire County Council. However, it is yet to be officially approved by Parliament. The leaders’ group will meet Government civil servants in Wellingborough today and hope to get more answers about timings then.
A new website with information about the new unitaries has also been launched.