Warning over wellbeing of vulnerable children if North Yorkshire is split into multiple unitary councils

Vulnerable children could fall through the gaps if North Yorkshire does not adopt a unitary council model ahead of devolution, experts have warned, in the latest turn in the county’s local government debate.

Friday, 21st August 2020, 5:45 am

Leaders in North Yorkshire have been told local government restructure towards unitary authorities is a prerequisite for securing a devolution deal with the Government with increased powers and funding.

But Ministers have left it up to county and district leaders to put forward proposals on how that would look, whether one mega-council for the whole area, or smaller unitary authorities covering more local footprints. North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) has launched a bid to form one unitary council, with many district leaders fearing this would be too large.

But Professor Maggie Atkinson, chair of the North Yorkshire Children’s Safeguarding Board, and Sir Martin Narey, chair of the North Yorkshire Coast Opportunity Area, have thrown their weight behind NYCC’s proposal to create a single unitary authority covering the whole of North Yorkshire.

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Devolution in North Yorkshire can only go ahead with local government restructure. Photo: JPI Media

Prof Atkinson said that if two or more unitary authorities were created, it would mean appointing new heads of service and splitting departments.

She said: “I can see no sense, not least about expense in this situation, but very importantly in terms of the ongoing quality of service, particularly for vulnerable children and to vulnerable families.”

She added: “If you then split what you’re doing, what you inevitably have to do is, for example, decide who gets the children’s home, who gets which social workers, who gets which senior staff, and what happens to county-wide resources that have to be split in however many different directions, all of which is a massive distraction from offering services as offered now.

“The gaps will be created by people having to split their time between doing the day job and managing massive change, and uncertainty and potentially instability in their own jobs and in those of others.

“Those things can’t be ignored and the most vulnerable children and young people would inevitably face the possibility of falling in the gaps.

“We can’t prove that they would, but the likelihood of doing so is heightened by people having to try to undergo such massive change.”

In a letter to NYCC chief executive Richard Flinton, Prof Atkinson said she had both worked for local authorities while they underwent structural change, and also was a resident in places where local authority change had taken place, and she concluded: “The opportunity presented by creating a single unitary council is that it would deliberately bring everything that is brightest and best into one corporate whole.”

Sir Martin, who was previously the chief executive of charity Barnardos, added: “I think for the delivery of most services – and crucially in getting the devolution to North Yorkshire – a unitary authority would be better for all the services.

“I think on some of the things that we’re doing in the opportunity area, trying to find better opportunities for children on the coast, an arrangement which brought devolution could help us to do that.”