The government has decided to change the way that local councils operate within Northamptonshire.
Northamptonshire County Council plus 7 district and borough councils (Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough, East Northamptonshire, Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire) will be replaced by two new unitary councils on 1st April 2021.
In Kettering this means that North Northamptonshire Unitary Council will take over providing our local services that are currently split between Northamptonshire County Council and Kettering Borough Council, as well as those currently provided by Corby, Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire councils.
West Northamptonshire Unitary Council will take over providing local services from Northamptonshire County Council and Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire councils in the other half of the county.
For years the Conservative controlled Northamptonshire County Council boasted that they had the lowest (or one of the lowest) levels of Council Tax in the country. This resulted in serious financial problems, cuts in services, selling off assets, debts and redundancies.
In February 2018 the County Council was effectively bankrupt. Legally councils can't be bankrupt, but when they run out of money and are in a situation similar to being bankrupt, they have to ban spending by issuing a "Section 114 Notice". Northamptonshire County Council was the first council in 20 years to do so. Eventually, in May 2018, the government stepped in and appointed Commissioners to run the council.
The financial problems haven't gone away, but it was decided that the way forward was to change the structure of local government in the county by setting up the two new unitary councils.
North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire "shadow authorities" were setup in May 2020 to prepare for the restructure. They will become the new unitary councils and take over from the existing councils on the 1st April 2021. There will be local elections to elect councillors to the new unitary councils on 6th May 2021.
Additionally some towns and parishes have their own town or parish council. These are responsible for providing some delegated local services and existing town and parish councils will continue to exist. Exactly which duties, responsibilities, local services and costs may be passed to them from the new unitary authorities isn't really known at this stage, but they are important councils to give local people a voice as key decisions are made.
Until now, having a local council at the Kettering Borough level has meant that not every town or parish has wanted or needed its own council. However, a unitary authority will be a larger organisation and steps have been taken to form new town councils in the bigger communities that currently don't have them (for example in Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough) to help keep local voices involved in local decisions.
The impact of these changes is serious and studies of other areas that have 'gone unitary' (like Cornwall, County Durham and Dorset) clearly show that the whole process is not simple or straightforward.
It may take many years before the changes settle down and new arrangements are established. Getting things right from day one may be the objective, but decisions made over the coming months will have an impact on local communities that could last for many years.
The process will need all the experience that local government can offer and a huge level of co-operation to ensure that our communities get the kind of council services that they need and deserve in the future.
It is important that your local democratically elected representatives have the skills, knowledge and experience to take on the huge challenge that is on the horizon, and this is the part where you have important choices to make on 6th May 2021.
With thanks to Phil Sawford and Desborough Labour Party in creating this article.