Disappointed Harrogate leader says decision to scrap district councils 'flies in face of the criteria'

The leader of Harrogate Borough Council, which now faces extinction, says he is disappointed the Government has backed Northallerton over district councils in its decision over who will run the county in the biggest shake-up of local government here for 50 years..

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 10:25 am
Harrogate Borough Council Coun Richard Cooper said: "I am disappointed at this decision and I will be interested in due course to read the Government’s reasoning."
Harrogate Borough Council Coun Richard Cooper said: "I am disappointed at this decision and I will be interested in due course to read the Government’s reasoning."

After Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick MP revealed last night that it chosen the bid for a new single council structure proposed by North Yorkshire County Council over a rival one for two authorities split on a east/west basis which would have left power in the hands of smaller councils such as Harrogate's, Coun Richard Cooper said he supported the shake-up in principle and would work to support the new authority but the decision itself "flew in the face of the Government's own criteria"..

Coun Cooper said: "I am disappointed at this decision and I will be interested in due course to read the Government’s reasoning.

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"It is more appropriate to comment on how this odd decision, which flies in the face of the government’s own criteria, was reached after I have done that reading.

"I have always been in favour of unitary government. It is less confusing for residents who will only have one council to go to for all services and it avoids the expense of duplication."

Under the new system agreed last night after months of bids, talks and consultations, all seven of North Yorkshire's existing district councils will be abolished and services taken over the county council following elections to be held in May next year.

But York will remain its own unitary council and will not be part of the new body.

North Yorkshire now also looks certain to get its own elected mayor with substantial powers and a sizable budget.

The biggest changes in how Harrogate is governed is the result of national government's drive for regional devolution with more power to fuel economic growth away from London.

The mood in Harrogate to the news is not one of surprise at the decision, more disappointment at the inevitability of the Government's choice with some seeing it not as a blow but as an opportunity to improve the town's future.

In picking Northallerton's bid, Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick MP rejected the 'east/west plan' supported by Harrogate Borough Council which would have seen the county’s seven district councils - Scarborough, Harrogate, Ryedale, Craven, Hambleton, Selby and Richmondshire - and York split in half to create two authorities of roughly the same population size.

Scarborough, Ryedale, Selby and York would have been in one authority with Craven, Hambleton, Richmondshire and Harrogate in the other.

At the most fundamental level the decision raises questions about local accountability and efficiency and how these twin goals are best served.

Coun Cooper says the Government's own criteria which had specified the ideal size and make-up of any new unitary authority should have favoured the 'east/west plan'.

Coun Cooper said: "My argument has always been that any unitary for our area needs to be of the right size and structure to deliver efficient and responsive services to residents.

"The county council deliver some services exceptionally – children’s services and adult social care to name two. In other areas they let our borough down."

But the Harrogate council leader also believes the new authority for North Yorkshire has the power to do good and that voters will ultimately only care if the end results on the ground aren't good.

Coun Cooper said: "My job now as the Leader of Harrogate Borough Council is to explore how the new unitary authority, based on the county structure, can improve these shortcomings.

"I do not believe that many are bothered who empties their bins, cuts the grass, fills the potholes and provides all the other local services as long as they do it well.

"Making sure current services which are excellent continue at that high standard and ensuring those that are falling short improve is my primary concern."

North Yorkshire County Council, which already delivers 80% of services in the Harrogate district is convinced their system will turn out to be the most efficient.

Leader of North Yorkshire County Council, Councillor Carl Les said: “We are pleased that this has been recognised by the Government as the right thing for the future, but now we have to work together between the two tiers to make the transition as good as possible for the benefit of our residents, our businesses and the many staff that we employ as well.

“This moves away from the confusion you get in tiers of whose job is what.

"For example at the moment you have one council emptying the bins and then another disposing of the rubbish - there are so many confusions like this.

"We have always believed that two tiers is inefficient and within inefficiency comes extra costs.

“By getting rid of the confusion and the inefficiency, we get rid of that extra cost which actually puts the council in a stronger position going forward because local government is not going to be in a good place for funding because the nation has to recover from the pandemic, and all the spending that the chancellor has been quite rightly doing so has been to protect jobs.”

Speculation has been growing in recent months that, once North Yorkshire councils have been scrapped and replaced with one authority, major areas such as Harrogate will get their own town councils with their own powers and money, though limited in nature.

The new council in North Yorkshire is expected to deliver all public services in the county from April 2023.