Council commits to start making Northamptonshire a unitary authority by 2019/20 in move that could save £29m a year

The county council budget press conference this morning. From left, chief executive Paul Blantern, leader of the council, Councillor Heather Smith, cabinet member for finance, Councillor Robin Brown and interim chief finance officer Damon Lawrenson.
The county council budget press conference this morning. From left, chief executive Paul Blantern, leader of the council, Councillor Heather Smith, cabinet member for finance, Councillor Robin Brown and interim chief finance officer Damon Lawrenson.

Plans to look at scrapping the current eight-council system in Northamptonshire and replacing it with one ‘super authority’ will start next year after a report found the move could save the county up to £29 million a year.

A new report by professional services firm Ernst & Young has suggested medium-sized councils across the country could save millions by scrapping their current two-tier systems of governance.

Earlier this year, leader of the county council Heather Smith, said moving to a unitary - where effectively one council would look after all areas of local government from waste collection to highways maintenance - was “not a priority.”

Announcing the 2017/18 budget proposals today, she said the council’s “immediate priority” was to continue with the so-called- “Next Generation Model”; a plan that will eventually see all of the council’s services run by four mutual companies.

But she has now committed to the council becoming a unitary by the 2019/20 financial year following the Ernst & Young report.

She said: “We believe it is essential that. under the current budgetary pressures local public services are under, we need to do all we can to safeguard local services and deliver value for money to our residents.”

But the announcement is likely to face a backlash from the leaders of borough and district councils across the county.

In March, Northampton Borough Council said the county town would need to have its own unitary authority - while the rest of Northamptonshire is covered by a separate one.

However, Councillor Smith is proposing to simply have one council covering the whole of Northamptonshire - with the powers of the districts and boroughs reduced to something akin to that of a local town council, such as Towcester.

“Based on examples from other areas of the country and recent studies,” she said, “we believe the move to a single unitary authority provides the most financial benefits to the tax payers of Northamptonshire and will next year be conducting a full appraisal of the options.”

But on whether she could bring the district and borough leaders on board with the single unitary plan, she was less optimistic.

“We might never convince them, because they want two, three unitary authorities,” she said.

“But if it was two the level of savings would be much less.

“It is very difficult getting good quality staff to fill executive roles, which are a statutory requirement. The more councils you have, the more executives there are, the less money you save.”

Councillor Smith believes both the Next Generation model and a unitary authority can work side by side.

If cabinet gives its approval to today’s budget announcements, the county council’s proposed savings for 2017-2018 will go out to a six-week consultation before another report is heard by cabinet again in February.

Approval will then be given at a meeting of the full council on February 23.

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