North Yorkshire kick starts unitary bid to secure devolution deal

Time is critical if North Yorkshire is to secure devolution and all the regional powers and funding that go with it to supercharge economic recovery and development opportunities and improve the quality of life for everyone.

A montage of iconic landscapes from across North Yorkshire

So the council’s executive has today ordered its officers to put together a bid for one single council to serve the county to try and secure Government backing for a deal. The bid will now be progress and will be the only one capable of delivering the maximum value for money, minimum disruption and strongest opportunities for renewed economic prosperity needed to help the county punch its weight nationally. It will also protect North Yorkshire’s global brand and values, keeping the area’s unique natural and cultural assets intact.

Ministers view English devolution as a means of creating better, fairer life chances for people in all parts of the country by addressing historic funding inequalities. This is crucial to economic renewal following the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are therefore pressing a number of regions to move at pace if they wish to pursue strong devolution deals. However, Ministers have also instructed that a deal can only be done if the current two-tier local government system of 7 districts and a county council here ends, and one or more larger councils are formed.

North Yorkshire County Council leader, Cllr Carl Les said: “The timing is critical as we drive post-pandemic recovery and York and North Yorkshire need to act now to ensure we are not left behind. We have therefore today instructed officers to put together a business case for a single strong, sustainable council for everyone in North Yorkshire, based on the current map and population.

“Not only will a single council based on the county’s current identity, simplify things for people and businesses - renewing our economic fortunes following the shock delivered by the pandemic - it will protect and strengthen high-quality frontline services. It will also unleash the county’s potential and deliver very significant financial savings by ending duplication, improving efficiency and driving innovation. We estimate savings in excess of £25m every year, offering the best value for money for everyone. No other bid would be able to match these benefits. Equally importantly it will protect a global and recognised brand which is crucial for our visitor economy.”

The bid will outline how a strong single unitary would deliver maximum value for money and protect nationally acclaimed critical services for the county’s most vulnerable residents. Ensuring they are not broken up and avoiding the major disruption, damage and cost splitting them would cause. It would also boost grassroots level decision-making in a ‘double devo’ approach whereby those town and parish councils that want it could take on additional powers and budget. Local democracy would be strengthened via a network of community forums based on areas served by Market Town areas.

It would also mirror a well-trodden path, following in the footsteps of the success of other strong single councils like our close neighbours in County Durham (population circa 530k). There eight councils became one in 2009 and the new single council has consistently delivered annual savings of more than £20million while delivering very effective services.

It has also maintained a strong financial position, grown the areas economic fortunes and empowered local communities via Area Action Partnerships. Cornwall is enjoying similar benefits and serves a population of around 570,000 people with a great deal of success. Both consider their size and scale as critical to them being resilient in today’s world to protect frontline services and create better opportunities for people and businesses.

In addition, North Yorkshire’s single council bid will also deliver on the latest public statement from the Secretary of State, Simon Clarke MP, who said, in response to a parliamentary question on the size of unitary councils: “The Devolution White Paper to be published this Autumn will set out our transformative plans for economic recovery and renewal, and for levelling up opportunity, prosperity, and well-being across the country. These plans will include restructuring our local institutions to deliver these outcomes, establishing more mayors and more unitary councils the populations of which will depend on local circumstances but as a rule of thumb are expected to be substantially in excess of 300k-400k.”

Read the response from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government regarding population size for unitary authorities

Closer to home it’s a proposal which would also safeguard the current and well-established unitary council in the City of York, avoiding major disruption to services there at a critical moment in its history. A new single North Yorkshire Council would respect and value the strong working relationship and shared services already operating successfully with York and build on that collaboration, expanding it to cover matters like planning and economic development. Building stronger and renewed economies that complement one another and which would be capable of driving the regions shared ambitions.

The county council’s executive agreed that a partnership of York and North Yorkshire unitary authorities would be in the strongest position to secure the region’s devolution “asks” from Westminster - a £2.4bn deal with a £25m annual gain share over 30 years. This critical funding would be used to supercharge the region’s transport and digital infrastructures, transform high streets and market town centres, boost housing and business development, drive the skills agenda and a green revolution by protecting and developing the county’s vast natural assets.

“We have thrown our hat into the ring to create one North Yorkshire council,” said Cllr Les. “There is a great deal at stake and this is the only sustainable credible option. We must avoid very significant and unnecessary costs and disruption by breaking our county and outstanding services up and build a better future as one, protecting brand North Yorkshire. The time for this is now.”

The final decision about whether to submit a unitary bid will be one for a future executive meeting and full county council to take.  

The government has yet to announce when it wants bids to be submitted, but a deadline is anticipated as soon as September. Government would then undertake public consultation on its preferred options.

This story was published 28 July 2020