Government appoints Kettering Council leader to head up new unitary council

Cllr Russell Roberts has been given the top job in the absence of elections which were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Cllr Roberts is the current leader of Kettering Council.
Cllr Roberts is the current leader of Kettering Council.

Kettering Council’s leader has been appointed as the leader of the new shadow authority that will be set up next month to make decisions for the new unitary council.

Conservative Cllr Russell Roberts has been chosen by Government to lead the executive that will make the key decisions for how the new North Northamptonshire unitary authority will be set up.

However the plans for the reorganisation of the county’s local government system have been hit by the coronavirus crisis as some team members from the Future Northants Programme have been reassigned to the county’s virus mitigation efforts.

Cllr Roberts was chair of the Leader's oversight board (pictured above) made up from council leaders across Northamptonshire who have been masterminding the unitary reorganisation to date.

Therefore the reorganisation programme will be reviewed to work out what can be delivered by April next year.

And the county’s Labour group is not happy that the unitary is moving ahead at all in the middle of the coronavirus crisis and has called on the Government to postpone the reorganisation.

Elections to the shadow authorities should have taken place next month but have been postponed for a year along with all polls across the country due to the pandemic. Because of the cancellation an alternative approach and new legislation was needed to create the new unitaries.

A statement put out today (April 16) by the Future Northants programme said: “The response to the current Public Health emergency is the top priority for all councils in the county. However all council leaders recently welcomed the news that new legislation was being published to ensure the changes to local government would not interfere with the Covid-19 response.

“As expected, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has now set out these changes to the legislation passed in Parliament earlier this year. The amended regulations were published today and will come into effect on 8 May.

“This means the North and West Shadow Councils will still be set up next month to lead the preparations for creating the two unitary councils. Instead of being made up of newly elected councillors, they will combine the membership of the existing district, borough and county councils. The existing councillors will sit on the shadow authorities until 1 April 2021. The elections to the new unitary councils will take place on 6 May 2021.

“This is the procedure that MHCLG adopted for the creation of new unitary councils in Buckinghamshire, Dorset and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, electing councillors directly to the shadow authority is more unusual when creating new councils.”

Cllr Roberts will lead the shadow until April next year. Elections to the new council will then take place in May 2021.

He will be deputised by leader of Wellingborough council Cllr Martin Griffiths. The other eight councillors who will make up the executive are Corby Council leader Cllr Tom Beattie, his deputy Cllr Jean Addison, Cllr Ian Jelley, Cllr Tom Partridge-Underwood, East Northants Council’s leader Steven North and Cllr Wendy Brackenbury, Cllr David Jenney and Cllr Jason Smithers. Eight of the councillors are from the Conservative party and two are Labour.

The Shadow North Northamptonshire Council will comprise of 152 members made up of the elected councillors from the Kettering, Corby, East Northants and Wellingborough councils.

The shadow authority will set the budget for the new council as well as working out how to harmonise council tax levels. Currently council tax rates across the various boroughs are different but over time will have to be brought into line.

Cllr Roberts, who was selected as leader of the North shadow authority due to his role as chair of the Leaders’ Oversight Board, said: “I am very excited by the opportunity and I will do it to the utmost of my ability. Our main objective is to fight this battle against coronavirus but we do have to look to our future and keep moving forward with the unitary reorganisation.”

Cllr Bob Scott, who is the leader of the labour group at Northamptonshire County Council said the way forward being proposed by government was undemocratic.

He said: “Northamptonshire Labour group of councillors wish to make clear that in these very difficult times, all energy and all resource should be focused on dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.

“Our priority must be meeting the needs of our most vulnerable households and looking after all essential workers. It is a worry that Local Government reorganisation for the county is still on the Government’s agenda. Still costing the tax payer millions.

“We call on the Government to postpone reorganisation of the County, Districts and Boroughs into two Unitary authorities and bring reorganisation in line with the postponed local elections in 2021.

“This will mean no further expenditure on reorganisation for this financial year, and will sure that Councillors and the leadership teams going forward into Unitary will have a proper and democratic mandate.”

Dates for the first meetings of the shadow councils has yet to be confirmed and will be held virtually, with opportunities for the public to take part. Dates and details will be posted on futurenorthantsnorth.org and futurenorthantswest.org websites.