Wrong time, wrong priority

Can a Group of Policy Experts Prevent an Election Catastrophe in 2020? –  Mother Jones

We have made no secret on our distaste for the “mayoral” style of local government systems. They put enormous amounts of power in the hands of one person. That looked wrong even in at best of times.

Now the governments apparent determination to move ahead quickly with another reorganisation of Local Government in York and North Yorkshire, in the middle of a pandemic, looks to be at the extreme end of irresponsible.

Local government Leaders should be able to devote all of their energises and resources to addressing the health crisis.

Some already look exhausted by the pressures of the crisis.

Reorganisation is an unnecessary distraction which the government should shelve at least until the pandemic, and the outfall from BREXIT, are behind us.

Against that background the York Council and North Yorkshire County Council have prepared a policy proposal which would see the City’s boundaries left as they are. York would still have a – ceremonial – Lord Mayor and local electors would get what they voted for (rather than what their counterparts in Scarborough thought that they should have).

The Council have issued the following statement prior to an Executive discussion next week. The Executive paper is published here: https://democracy.york.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?MId=12298&x=1

“Council confirms there is no functional, historical or logical reason for merging York

Devolution for York and North Yorkshire and Unitarisation for North Yorkshire

structures and so, unlock the devolution process, City of York Council today (16 October) proposed there is no functional, historical or logical reason to merge York with surrounding rural and coastal areas.

In a report to the Executive, it is proposed that York’s footprint should remain the same, to retain local decision making in York, focus on recovery efforts, avoid significant disruption and cost, and continue to deliver value for money services to residents, businesses and communities. 

If agreed, Executive will refer to Full Council on 29 October to decide whether to provide a submission to government that demonstrates York should remain on the existing footprint by providing evidence that there is no functional, historical or logical reason to merge York with other local authorities.

To reduce the 2-tier county and district structures in North Yorkshire, there are only two options being put forward.  The first, the council’s preferred option, would mean York remains on its existing footprint and North Yorkshire creates a new single council, serving the whole of North Yorkshire and based on its recognised geography and identity. This would bring together the eight councils currently providing public services there. The second, proposed by the district authorities, is an east/west split that would see York merge with Ryedale, Scarborough and Selby, covering a geography that would stretch 65 miles north/south, and 45 miles east/west.

To achieve greater efficiencies between City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council, a Strategic Partnership agreement has been created, which describes how seizing opportunities to share resources or lead different aspects of service delivery, whilst respecting the differences between the two places, will better support the region.

There are several benefits of York remaining as a unitary on its existing footprint:

  • The speed at which devolution maybe achieved
  • The continuity of services at a time critical for Covid recovery
  • The continued identify of the City

However, should any change be made to City of York’s existing footprint, there will be a series of detrimental impacts, including

  • an anticipated £117 increase for Band D taxpayers in York (representing an 8% increase).
  • disruption to services across York and the districts during this crucial recovery period
  • end of the 800 year connection between the city and the council, impacting on the very identity of the city.

Over the past few months, consultation has taken place with local residents, businesses and communities regarding devolution and unitarisation, which has been used to feed into the analysis of proposals included in the report.  As part of Our Big Conversation, residents have been sending their views on the topic, with 65% of residents believing council services won’t be improved by covering a larger area.  As part of the consultation, the Council has also held two devolution focused Facebook Live Q&A’s, and has set up numerous briefing sessions with local businesses, charitable and voluntary groups, and local civic organisations.

The council has not been consulted on the east/west proposal and therefore does not know the detail.  As a result it is not possible to accurately assess the impact. 

York has a strong case for remaining the same:

  • t is a median-sized unitary authority with the 7th lowest level of council tax of any unitary.
  • It’s geography (compact urban and sub-urban) is distinctly different to it’s surrounding area (rural and coastal)
  • It has maintained financial stability since it was formed in 1996.
  • It supports a successful, sustainable city, recognised as one of the best places to live in the UK, with world renowned universities and an education system amongst the best in the country.
York responds to the criteria set by central government

To support Executive make an informed decision, the council has summarised evidence for its case to continue on its existing footprint against the criteria provided by government”. 

Does local decision making matter?

York Council propaganda brochure cover

The York Council is asking residents to support them by making representations to the government about a possible local government reorganisation.

They have point about unnecessary change being debilitating at a time when all resources should be focused on the recovery from the health crisis and the possible downside from BREXIT.

Most attention is focused on Council boundaries. The biggest threat to accountability is however posed by the introduction of a Mayoral position covering the whole of York and North Yorkshire.

Local government reorganisations in 1973 and again in 1997 were debilitating with new structures and personalities taking many years to come to terms with roles, geographies and priorities.  The post reorganisation periods were not ones that will be recorded in history for dynamic and decisive decision making. Rather they were periods where individuals and political parties jockeyed for position and advantage.

We now enjoy a settled structure with which everyone is familiar if not universally comfortable.

Some will say that there is no right time for system reform. That may be true.

But there is certainly a wrong time and we are clearly in the middle of it.

There has been little debate about the powers and responsibilities of an elected Mayor. While the achievements of the, hitherto largely urban, mayors attract mixed reviews, few argue that the system gives the average person any greater say over decisions affecting their local community.

The system is untested in a predominantly rural area of the size of North Yorkshire. The nearest parallel we have is the directly elected Police, Fire & Crime Commissioner. Turnout in the elections for that post was only 23%.  There was no mandate for the creation of the position and therefore people have not engaged with it. The underlying concern – absolute power corrupts absolutely – although an exaggeration in this case clearly has some relevance with many PFCC and Mayors displaying, after a few years, a tendency towards directional rather than consensus government. For this reason, the NYPFCC was eventually discarded by her own party and clings to power only because of the pandemic which caused elections to be suspended.

Women Voting GIF by US National Archives

For that reason we hope that any move towards creating a Mayoral post will be subject to a referendum of those living in the area.

They should be given a chance to choose between the change and the status quo.

That would be in line with the government’s stated intention to apply the principle of subsidiarity to local decision making and not to impose change on an unwilling community.

NB. In the period up to October 2016, there had been 53 referendums on the question of changing executive arrangements to a model with a directly elected mayor. Of these, 16 resulted in the establishment of a new mayoralty and 37 were rejected by voters

Conspiracy theory

Trojan Horse GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY
Once again York is being touted as the new home for the House of Lords.

Several newspapers are claiming that the move of government departments to the City is gaining traction. One even claims that some officials have been “house hunting” in the area.

As we have said before, re-establishing York as the capital of the north is an attractive prospect. The City has excellent transport links while an ideal location for a second chamber – or whatever you may wish to call it – exists next to the railway station.

The prospect must be enticing for City leaders. But any move is likely to be a decade away and much can happen in the interim.

It may, or may not, be a coincidence that at precisely the same time as this enticing prospect hit the headlines again another, less welcome, government initiative floated into view.

The North Yorkshire Mayor

As well as the prospect of devolved resources from Whitehall, the North Yorkshire Mayor would take on some powers which have hitherto been rooted in local communities. Not least amongst these is strategic planning. Decisions on, for example, York’s Green Belt could rest in the hands of a politician who would, based on election results during the last 40 years, be unlikely to enjoy the support of most York residents.

That was a recurring issue when the City formed part of the North Yorkshire County Council between 1973 and 1997. Controversial, even perverse, decisions are easier to take when those affected are 40 (or 200) miles away.

Eventually poor and insensitive decision making on essentially local issues led to the City reasserting an element of independence.

The next few weeks may be a critical time for York. A positive and proactive strategy is needed to lead the City out of the health crisis.

Negotiations on devolution, and the prospect of another local government reorganisation, will be an unwelcome distraction.

City leaders must get their priorities right.