Kettering Constituency Labour Party is alarmed at and opposes the proposals to abolish Northamptonshire County Council, Kettering Borough Council and all other borough and district councils across Northamptonshire and to replace them with two unitary authorities by April 2020: one covering Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough and East Northants; the other covering Northampton, South Northants and Daventry.
The Conservatives, both in government and in the County Council, have failed us. These proposals mask their responsibility for the mess by throwing everything up in the air, confusing the public, and hoping we will swallow the shock doctrine that new unitaries will magically solve the chaos the Conservatives have created. They won’t and stand a good chance of making things worse for the people of Northamptonshire.
Although the notion of forming unitary authorities may superficially have some merit, potentially simplifying service provision and making local authorities clearer and more transparent to the public, these proposals are hugely dangerous given the timescales proposed and the circumstances that has led to the situation in which they have arisen: the Conservative administration’s mismanagement of County Council resources and finances,compounded by the Conservative government’s refusal to give Northamptonshire a better financial deal, that has led to a massive level of debt of £1billion.
Unless the government is willing to cover this debt, it will be transferred and will have a massively impact on the proposed replacement authorities, in time replicating in them the same problems that the County Council has faced. It will dramatically drain resources from services currently being provided effectively by Kettering Borough Council and other district councils, particularly housing, grounds maintenance, street cleaning and environmental services, punishing the councils that have played no part in the precarious and dangerous mismanagement of the County Council.
The priority that must be given to both adult and children’s social care will inevitably mean that resources will be targeted to meet these needs, placing at risk other current Borough Council assets, such as the jewels of our museum and art gallery. It is likely that all the districts’ carefully managed reserves will be raided to pay for the negligence over the years of the County Council.
The impact is likely to be felt sharply and disproportionately by those in all the protected characteristics of the Equality Act, many of whom are already affected adversely by local authority provision. Priority will be given to critical statutory services and preventative services will be ignored.
This will lead to an increase in the demand on the very critical services that have been prioritised, which are likely to collapse. This effect is already being felt within the services currently being provided by the County Council, and will inevitably toxify the whole remit of services provided by the new authorities, further undermining faith in the public sphere and dangerously eroding trust in local democracy.
The timescale is unworkable, given the scope of the reorganisation that is planned. The number of elected representatives has yet to be agreed, and new boundaries will need to be drawn. This is a complex and sensitive issue, and takes time, with the involvement of the Electoral Commission and proper consultation. It is completely unrealistic to think that this can be managed by the proposed deadline of April 2020.
It is crucial that the number of elected representatives is sufficient to be able to build links with the communities they serve and to carry out their Council duties. These are likely effectively to be full-time jobs and should be given proper remuneration is given in order to attract a representative cross-section of people, otherwise, they will attract only those who can afford to take them – the more well-off or those who have retired.
Should the proposals go ahead, it is essential that that there are strong local councils in the major towns and that proper consideration is given to services that they will be providing and to their resourcing. Parish councils are not in a position to undertake the provision of services for which they are not currently responsible, but there is a danger of them being landed with responsibilities for which they are not equipped, financed, or willing to accept.
The areas forming the proposed North Northamptonshire unitary authority – Kettering, Corby, East Northants and Wellingborough – have disproportionately higher needs, and disproportionately lower financial resources than the other proposed unitary authority. This was highlighted by the Social Mobility Commission’s recent reportState of the Nation 2017, in which Corby, Kettering, East Northants and Wellingborough were identified as being the lowest in Northamptonshire – and in the bottom 10% of English –authorities – in terms of social mobility. This needs to be acknowledged within any financial settlement and the difficulties addressed fairly.
The proposals set out by the Government are unacceptably vague and unclear, making consultation on them difficult if not impossible. It is essential that vigorous conversations with further information are held with the public, and with town and parish councils, and effective means sought to engage them to explain the implications of what is proposed, and to seek their views.