We're not too small to be effective, insists City of York Council leader Keith Aspden amid row over North Yorkshire merger

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The leader of York's council has insisted that "bigger isn't necessarily best" as he set out his opposition to the city authority being merged with others in North Yorkshire as part of a devolution deal.

District leaders are drawing up a plan that would see two unitary authorities being drawn up in North Yorkshire, with one east of the A1 merging City of York with Selby, Ryedale and Scarborough.

But Keith Aspden, the Liberal Democrat leader of City of York council, believes his boundaries should remain untouched in the local government shake-up the Government is demanding in order for North Yorkshire to get new powers and funding from Westminster.

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Some in government are understood to think the 200,000 population served by City of York is too small for it to operate effectively.

But Coun Aspden said the population served by his council was bigger than in Calderdale or Kirklees and said it was bigger local authorities like Leeds and Birmingham which were seeing the worst financial troubles.

He said: "So actually, financial viability doesn't necessarily only relate to size but there's a whole variety of different things in terms of business rate income and commercial stock income that the council has that needs to be taken into account.

"Kirklees Council is smaller than us, Calderdale Council is smaller, Hull is about the same size, lots of London boroughs are smaller than York.

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City of York Council leader Keith AspdenCity of York Council leader Keith Aspden
City of York Council leader Keith Aspden

"And I just reject this notion that councils need to be so big that they can no longer represent communities, towns and cities and some very famous and significant cities of the North of England."

Last month Minister Simon Clarke told North Yorkshire leaders that its seven district councils would have to be disbanded and replaced unitary authorities providing all council services if a devolution deal was to be agreed.

Mr Aspden, who took over as leader last year, criticised the decision to impose what he described as a "top-down process" of bringing in mayoral authorities and local government changes when the country is just emerging from a pandemic.

He said he had not seen a convincing reason to change City of York Council's boundaries and that he welcomed North Yorkshire County Council's plans to create one unitary authority for the county which left York intact.

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North Yorkshire's district leaders have criticised plans for what they say is a "mega council" and are thought to be discussing plans for two unitary authorities either side of the A1, each representing around 400,000 people.

But Coun Aspden said grouping York with Ryedale and Scarborough would ignore its "economic geography" which looks west towards Leeds and Bradford.

He said his plans submitted to government would make the financial case for York remaining a unitary authority on the same boundaries as before, adding that now was not the time to losing focus on major projects like York Central and Castle Gateway.

He said: "Which is why having looked at the options, it very much seems to me that the strongest case is for York as an existing unitary but working with the solution they come up with in North Yorkshire and obviously the county council proposal would make sense from our perspective."

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In June, City of York Council's bid to set out its planning vision for the next two decades suffered a major setback after government inspectors questioned the way it had drawn up the city boundaries.

Concerns were raised about "intrinsic flaws" in the methodology used to decide the area which should be designated as protected Green Belt land as part of the Local Plan.#

The council was one of two in Yorkshire to be warned in 2018 by then-Communities Secretary Sajid Javid over its "persistent failure" to finalise a Local Plan, which sets strategic priorities for the whole city and forms the basis for planning decisions.

The proposed plan, finally submitted in May 2018, looks to deliver over 20,000 homes over the next 20 years, including up to 4,000 more affordable homes, creating around 650 new jobs per year, whilst defining the Green Belt boundaries in planning law, for the first time since the 1950s.

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Coun Aspden said that even his council was merged with others, he would "still be wanting to define the Green Belt around York".

He said: "So even if York became part of a bigger authority and you decided to redo the local plan, in my opinion, it would be even more important to protect the core of York and the communities and the views and the strays of the city.

"Having spent decades, not personally but others, getting to the point of having that Local Plan in the process, it is really important to get it in front of government inspectors and get it considered."

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