Delay fears growing over unitary decision for Northamptonshire from government

Councillors from the county council and district and boroughs met this week
Councillors from the county council and district and boroughs met this week

Council leaders fear that a decision on whether to reorganise local councils in Northamptonshire could face delays while the Government focuses on Brexit.

The first ever public meeting of councillors looking ahead at the proposed reorganisation convened at The Guildhall in Northampton last night (March 26).

Councillors from Daventry, South Northamptonshire, Northampton borough and Northamptonshire county councils formed the first joint committee for the proposed new West Northamptonshire unitary, which would see all the councils merged under one roof.

The unitary route was recommended in a report by Government-appointed inspector Max Caller, who was tasked to see whether the county council was providing value for money.

Seven of the eight councils across the county agreed to the proposals, althought most were done reluctantly.

The reorganisation is still waiting for government approval after proposals were submitted last summer. But the joint committee heard fears from some councillors that the government may be too preoccupied with Brexit to give it the parliamentary time it needs to be approved.

It could mean that the planned start date of April 1, 2020, could be delayed unless a decision is made soon by the Secretary of State for Local Government, James Brokenshire MP.

Giving an update on the process, Northampton Borough Council chief executive George Candler said: “This will be determined on how much time it can be given in parliament.”

And South Northamptonshire Council leader Ian McCord went further, saying: “This all depends on a decision from the Secretary of State. We have been trying for weeks and months for them to give us a decision. But I haven't heard anything from the government that gives me any comfort they will stick to that timetable."

Mr Candler said that a decision would be made either BEFORE parliament breaks up for Easter recess on April 4, or AFTER it returns on April 23.

Northamptonshire County Council leader Matt Golby added: “We are still awaiting the decision from the Secretary of State. It may be the case that we have a lot more time ahead of us than we first expected."

Councillor Golby also implied that MPs were working with council leaders to write a letter to the government urging them to make its decision quickly.

Questions were raised by the committee as to where this would leave the county if the process were to be delayed.

Labour councillor Danielle Stone said: “If the timescale slips there's a real democratic issue here I feel. We've already suspended elections for 2019."

Although the joint committee was the first public meeting held in connection with the unitary proposals, it’s shelf life is expected to be short.

The committee’s remit is effectively to make preparations to allow the formation of a shadow executive.

Last night saw three ‘task and finish groups’ set up, which will see councillors ticks off certain tasks to help prepare for the next stage of the process.

This includes recommending a constitution to be adopted by the shadow authority and undertaking the recruitment process for key interim positions. These key interim appointments would include the head of paid service, chief finance officer and monitoring officer.

Another group will also agree the process for an independent review of a scheme of Members' Allowances, and setting up an Independent Remuneration Panel.

The committee is next due to meet on Tuesday, May 14.