Pandemic forces 'scaled back' unitary plans in Northants

Corby Council will be shut down to make  way for the new North Northants unitary.Corby Council will be shut down to make  way for the new North Northants unitary.
Corby Council will be shut down to make way for the new North Northants unitary.
The shadow councils will now periodically review whether the county’s two new unitary councils can set up as planned in April next year

Northamptonshire’s two new super councils are being scaled back and could be delayed once again, if existing councillors do not think the new authorities can be created safely and legally by next April.

The chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council Theresa Grant made clear at yesterday’s (May 12) virtual council meeting that the two new shadow councils being established next month could ask Government to put back the April 2021 launch date.

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The fate of the children’s trust – which was originally due to launch this month and has already been postponed – could also be put back.

Theresa Grant said the authority’s staff’s priority in recent months has been the coronavirus effort rather than the huge task of local government reorganisation. A new scaled back plan for unitary – called safe and legal plus – has been published today, but there are big question marks over whether unitary is doable within the next 11 months.

The chief executive said the new plan had been revised in light of the Covid crisis.

She said: “We have prioritsed Covid above all of our other activity, therefore we have had to -We have had to scale back on our expectation for unitary for 1st April. It wont be as all encompassing as the original plan. The reason we have done that is to make sure we can still get over the line on the first of April in a safe and legal way but we wil not interfere with the staffing on Covid.

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“When we agreed to go down this route it was with a clear instruction for all eight leaders of the councils that covid would remain our priority and LGR would only be delivered on the basis that it can be.

“We will review that at certain points in the process to see if it is still viable. The children’s trust this applies to aswell.

We will continue to review over the next few months. If we believe it is not a viable option we will at the point go back to government.”

At the meeting labour leader Cllr Bob Scott asked for clarity for workers, who were unsure of who they would be working for in April.

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The 4,000 staff currently employed by the county council will join either one of the two new unitaries in the North or the West, or could find their job has been made redundant. The roles of the district and borough staff are also still to be decided.

And it is not just the view of the opposition that the unitary should be delayed.

Cllr Adam Brown, who is also deputy leader of Daventry district council said the political led unitary reorganisation should play second fiddle to normal people’s lives.

The two new shadow councils will meet for the first time next month (Jun).

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In a media statement today Cllr Russell Roberts, leader of the new North Northamptonshire Shadow Authority said: “Our councils and services are facing unprecedented challenges in responding to the Covid pandemic and the health and welfare of our residents is at the forefront of everything we are doing.

“We’re working on the assumption that safe and legal is deliverable by 1 April 2021 but due to the uncertainty that exists at the moment, we will continually review what is possible to achieve and by when as we move through the next few months.

“We’ve had to re-think our ambitions as to what we can achieve by Go Live Day, but while the focus is on Safe and Legal we’ll be doing what we can between now and April.”

Councillor Ian McCord, leader of the new West Northamptonshire Shadow Authority, said: “Providing essential public services to residents and businesses during the Coronavirus pandemic has rightly been our top priority, with work on the new councils put on the back burner. As a result, we’ve had to scale back how much we can do before launch of the two new councils next April.

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“We’ll certainly have each new council up and running on time, but will complete much of the behind-the-scenes work of integrating staff from the previous councils later on. What’s most important is that residents relying on public services continue to see them run smoothly.”

Local government reorganisation for Northamptonshire was ordered by Government in 2018 in the wake of the financial implosion of the county council.

However the setting up timescale has always been pressured and the pandemic has made the task additionally hard.

The set up cost predicted before the pandemic was expected to be £43m, with the lion’s share coming from the county council, however the districts and boroughs were also havig to dip into their funds to pay for the restructure.

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The finances of all eight Northamptonshire councils now look less uncertain than they did when the pandemic hit in March and there are fears there could be a lasting cost impact for the authorities which is unlikely to be met by the cash given by government so far.

You can read the document called ‘Prospectus for Change – the next chapter’ in full here