Unitary bid: Consultation showed only 37 per cent want two unitaries

Northamptonshire is set to be split down the middleNorthamptonshire is set to be split down the middle
Northamptonshire is set to be split down the middle
Less than one per cent of people in Northamptonshire responded to an online questionnaire into whether a unitary model of local government should be adopted.

There are 746,000 people in the county and Opinion Research Services, which conducted the consultation, said that they received 6,287 responses questionnaire including 6,171 from individuals and 116 on behalf of organisations.

It was announced this afternoon (Friday) that councils in Northamptonshire will submit a bid for two unitary councils that will see the boroughs and county councils scrapped.

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In order for the bid to go ahead, it has to be shown that it has a ‘good deal of support’.

Although consultees agreed that something needs to change in the way the county is governed, only 37 per cent of people agreed that the current system should be replaced by two unitary authorities.

The consultation, which ran from June 18 to July 22 showed that the public was in support of the proposals, except for in Corby which is the only Labour-run council in the county.

There was also a telephone survey of 500 people, seven focus groups with randomly selected members of the public, one in each local authority area, two forums with business people, two forums with parish and town councillors and a discussion session with the Health and Wellbeing Board. Other authorities were also consulted.

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In the open questionnaire, nearly half of the people who responded were aged between 55 and 74. More men than women responded,

The report notes that in Northampton, more than 500 responses were photocopied from the same document and were wholly in favour of a separate Northampton Unitary authority. OPS did not discount these responses because they were all signed by different people.

The highest density of responses came from Daventry, East Northamptonshire, South Northamptonshire, and in the southern half of Wellingborough. The lower responding areas were mainly in Northampton or

in parts of proposed North Northants unitary - particularly the northern half of Wellingborough.

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The first question in the consultation asked whether people thought that was a need for a change in the way the county was governed. A high proportion of people agreed that change was necessary - 83 per cent of questionnaire respondents - although support was lower in Corby at 53 per cent.

Question number two asked to what extent respondents agreed that there is a need to reduce the number of councils. Two-thirds of individuals in the open questionnaire agreed, but with some considerable differences at district level: in Corby only about a fifth agreed, compared with nearly nine in 10 in Northampton.

The third question asked to what extent people agreed or disagreed that a number of unitary councils should be introduced in Northamptonshire. Two-thirds of open questionnaire respondents agreed, but levels of agreement again varied widely across by district. Only a fifth of Corby respondents agreed, compared with two-thirds or more in each of the remaining six districts.

Next, the questionnaire asked if respondents thought that the existing system should be replaced with two unitary authorities. Only 37 per cent of individual open questionnaire respondents agreed, while 59 per cent disagreed. Three districts had large absolute majorities of individuals agreeing with the proposal - East Northants, 61 per cent; Kettering, 68 per cent; and Wellingborough, 63 per cent. But minorities agreed in Northampton, 37 per cent; South Northants, 39 per cent; Daventry, 44 per cent and, above all, in Corby 18 per cent.

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In the final question, people were asked what was most important to them in a new council. Accountability came out top, followed quality, local identity, access and then, surprisingly, value for money.

There was a section for people to submit comments which drew a wide range of opinions including worries that a change to unitary would not solve the problems.

There was significant support for a unitary authority just for Northampton.

Focus groups were also consulted by Opinion Research Services. They said that people were ‘angry’.

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In their report, they said: “Once they became more fully aware of the long-term financial issues, many residents were so indignant by what they said was a lack of accountability by managers, members and auditors that their strong feelings were sometimes a barrier to considering the proposal for change.

“Their anger was sometimes such that some people even preferred the prolongation of the independent Commissioners rather than return local government to “the same old team” in whatever structure. The realisation that public sector finances could go so badly wrong also prompted a sense of apprehension that the proposed unitary councils could not be guaranteed to work well; in other words, an

understanding of recent events led to a heightened sense of risk that the residents had not experienced before.”

Parish councils that were consulted said they were worried about isolation and that rural areas would be forgotten while urban areas would benefit. A huge majority of parish councillors were against the two unitary authority model. Many wanted a three unitary model.

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Northamptonshire Police and Crime Commissioner Stephen Mold said that he thought a single unitary authority was the way forward because of concerns about the possible division of services like social care, and in particular how these would align with related services that continue to operate countywide.

You can read the full responses to the consultation here