Rising cost of Northamptonshire unitary moves ‘needs investigating’

Proposed unitary authority boundaries for Northamptonshire
Proposed unitary authority boundaries for Northamptonshire

The extra money required to bring in the two new unitary councils needs to be thoroughly investigated, says the Northamptonshire county councillor in charge of local government reform.

Speaking at a county council meeting this morning Cllr Andy Mercer said he is startled at the newly predicted additional £14m costs, which will take the estimated bill for unitary reorganisation up to £44m.

Plans for a new unitary governance system have been drawn up over the past few months since the Government announced that the county council was no longer fit for purpose and had to be abolished.

Cllr Andy Mercer, who is also an East Northamptonshire district councillor, said he believed the costs could go up by considerably more.

He said: “It needs a thorough investigation. This is all being done with considerable pace. I see problems down the road.”

The county council is in financial dire straits, although it is predicting that it can balance its books this year. Last year it had a £40m deficit, which it has paid back largely by the sale of new headquarters One Angel Square.

The new unitary cost figures have come into the public eye after a leak to the Local Democracy Reporting service.  Before then they were not common knowledge and many councillors were unaware that they were going upwards. It is probable the millions will have to be found by the existing councils before they are abolished.

The county council is so concerned about it that it put forward an amendment to unitary proposals today to put a freeze on unitary spending until the figures have been put under the microscope.

At the meeting the county council agreed its preferences for the new unitary council, which laid out items such as the number of councillors on the new unitaries.

A number of councillors also voiced their concerns at the speed at which unitary is moving forward. Despite Secretary of State James Brokenshire still not making a public decision it is expected that all eight councils in Northamptonshire will be scrapped in April 2020.

The next steps are joint committees being set up ahead of shadow authorities in the summer. These shadow authorities will appoint chief executives to the two unitaries.

Sarah Ward, Local Democracy Reporter