Residents are ‘unlikely’ to be given any more say on how two proposed unitary authorities will be formed, according to Northampton Borough Council’s leader.
Councillor Jonathan Nunn also revealed that while talks were stepping up behind the scenes, no plans had yet been made to move the meetings into the public domain.
And the Conservative leader, who gave an update on the tight schedule the authorities are facing, also revealed that he is far from convinced that the county council’s current plans for savings will be realised, leading to doubts as to whether the two new councils really face a fresh start.
In an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Councillor Nunn confirmed that a government consultation is due to start in the middle of November, with a proposed closure date of the end of December.
Asked who the government would consult, he said: “The councils and businesses such as the Chamber of Commerce. I don’t think it’s likely to feature a public consultation.”
He also revealed that draft deadlines would see the local proposals submitted by February 11, with the government confirming its decision on the unitary authority proposals on February 25 and a government piece of legislation known as the Structural Change Order - which would include the name of the council - established by Easter.
Councillor Nunn said: “There’s such an enormous amount of work to be done by the deadline, and it’s not going to be easy. What I’m confident on is that we have the people on hand to get on with the job, and that they are committed to doing that.
“It feels like you’re treading into the unknown and we are looking at other councils who have made the transition. But the reasons are probably different and the timescale is a lot smaller.”
The local government proposals would form two new councils in North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire, to replace the current county, district and borough councils.
They were reluctantly backed by six of the seven district and borough councils, with Corby the only authority to reject the scheme.
Discussions have now split between the two areas, with West Northamptonshire involving the councils in Northampton, Daventry and South Northamptonshire.
In his monthly leader’s report to full cabinet, NBC leader Councillor Nunn wrote: “The work is guided by regular meetings of the Leaders and Chief Executives of all councils, and also now by a Steering Group for the West and for the North.
“In addition, the section 151 Officers and the Monitoring Officers for the West and North are meeting regularly and following up a number of work-streams.
“In Northampton, our Cross-Party Working Group continues to be kept updated on progress, and the cross-party Community Governance Review Group, chaired by the Deputy Leader, is considering issues relating to local Community Councils / Town Council.”
But when asked by the Local Democracy Reporting Service whether plans were in place to make the Cross-Party Working Group meetings open to the public, Councillor Nunn said: “The idea has not been discussed to make them public. It’s just getting the job done. But we need to make sure that people are fully aware, and when there are options and choices we will communicate, but there’s an awful lot of things to get on with. We will do our best to answer questions when people approach us.
“We are making sure that people remain fully informed, there will be press releases and at the end of the meetings we will see what we can communicate with the public.”
One of the key concerns expressed by the county’s district and borough councils is whether the proposed unitary authorities will be able to start with balanced finances, instead of being lumbered with the debt racked up by the county council.
The county council’s ‘stabilisation plan’ has outlined the approach for addressing the £35 million unfunded deficit from the last financial year (2017/18) and how to balance this year’s budget (2018/19) that currently has a projected overspend of £20 million.
A significant part of the savings - thought to be around £11 million - is relying on the district and borough councils to increase the amount of council tax and business rates they collect, but Councillor Nunn wrote in his monthly report that he felt the required savings ‘will not be realised’.
He writes: “Along with other council leaders, I am concerned as to whether the
Stabilisation Plan will indeed put NCC on a trajectory that will mean that local government finances are balanced in Northamptonshire by 2020.
“It is also of concern that a significant proportion of the savings projected relate to actions on behalf of the district and borough councils, such as anticipated increases in the collection of business rates and council tax.
“This is not an area in which NBC have been highlighted as greatly under-performing hitherto, in fact, reports to audit committee have suggested this to be an area of sound performance, and so the increase in 0.5 per cent collections for Northampton targeted, in my view will not be realised.”