Liberal Democrats on devolution: Why Harrogate future should be within new ‘urban’ local authority with York and Selby

How do the Lib Dems view the road to devolution? Here, in his own words, County Coun Geoff Webber, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, North Yorkshire County Council sets out their thinking.

Saturday, 15th August 2020, 4:15 pm
Updated Saturday, 15th August 2020, 4:20 pm

“The middle of a pandemic seems a strange time to embark on the biggest programme of local government reorganization since 1974.

To quote from an attribution to Petronius (died AD 65): “I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization”.

What does the future hold for Harrogate as the prospect of devolution nears?

However, we are where we are, and it would seem that we have no choice but to make the best of any change imposed on us - like it or not.

It has long been North Yorkshire’s aim to form a NY unitary authority subsuming the seven district councils currently making up the area. Bids have been made for just this in the past and have failed, mainly on the grounds of population and geographical area.

Harrogate Liberal Democrats support that view and, if reorganisation is forced upon us, would rather see a Harrogate/York/Selby unitary working in partnership with a reduced North Yorkshire.

Geoff Webber, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, North Yorkshire County Council.

This would go some way to addressing the democratic deficit of a single, very large unitary authority and allow better local representation and decision making.

I would suggest that is a clear north/south split in terms of community engagement, economic activity and commonality of urban interest between Harrogate/York/Selby and the remainder of North Yorkshire which is essentially rural and based on market towns.

This is probably the best outcome we could hope for but it would rely on support from the City of York Council which, I believe, currently wishes to retain its existing borders.

Whatever the outcome of the various council submissions and the final government decision Harrogate Borough Council, as currently constituted, is almost certain to disappear so whatever that final decision is we will have to make the best of it. It could be that the best we can hope for is to become a town council, hopefully with significant powers devolved from whatever unitary we finish up in.

We must be careful though not to just replace one tier of local government with another.

Responsibility for litter and public toilets, as offered by North Yorkshire’s chief executive last week, is not enough; we need, even as a town council, to retain some control over planning, housing and leisure, all of which generate huge public interest and require decision making at a very local level.

The chief executive has also suggested that many local functions could be taken over by area committees; however, the current area committees, although useful for debate and public involvement, have no powers and can at best make recommendations to the executive.

Whatever structure we finish up with, area committees must have real powers and responsibilities with a commensurate budget.

If the new authority is part of a combined authority - ie two or more unitaries working in partnership - then the government have offered significantly increased funding if the new combined authority has a directly elected mayor. This individual would have extensive powers over transport, police and fire.

Whilst the funding would be welcome, Liberal Democrats see this as erosion of democracy and are concerned about the lack of accountability.

In formulating the devolution bid to government there has been little involvement by political parties other than the ruling group.

Since the government will only accept one submission from each authority it will inevitably reflect the ambition of the political party currently running the administration with no opportunity for other political groups to make their views known. A significant part of the electorate has thus been effectively disenfranchised.

The final submission will have to be approved by each council but on a majority vote - it is therefore possible, but unlikely, that any submission could be overturned at this stage. The new council and possibly the new mayor will be elected in 2022.

I would suggest that this would be an ideal time to shift to an election based on proportional representation.

There is plenty of time to choose a particular method from the several systems available and it would ensure that in future the voice of the whole electorate is heard, not just those that supported the winner.

Like it or not, change is coming and it will be up to elected councillors of all parties to ensure that we get the best deal for the people we represent regardless of party loyalties. I do not question the claims that savings can be made, but suspect that will be balanced by a loss of democratic accountability.

We must select the best and most accountable system of local government and not just the cheapest.”

County Councillor Geoff Webber

Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group,

North Yorkshire County Council