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”. 

The art of pretending to listen

North Yorkshire Mayor plan a fait accompli

this happens to me a lot - Imgflip

Many York residents will be irritated today, when they realise that the supposed consultation, on what the City might get out of losing its independence to a North Yorkshire Mayor, was a sham.

A list of funding requests to oil the coup appears to have already been endorsed by City Leaders. It is set to be nodded through as part of a heavy agenda at a “virtual” executive meeting next week.

The naive may have been distracted by the sweeteners leaked by the government this week. Variously these include siting the House of Lords, major government departments or even, temporarily, the House of Commons in the City. All are unlikely but mock indignation from southern peers and Lancastrian Mayors simply adds credibility to the ploy.

In a post COVID recession there will be no funding available for such changes.

Local government in York and North Yorkshire (YNY) is now seeking funding of £25 million a year in what is termed a Mayoral Devolution Deal. It forms part of what some are claiming would be a £2.4 billion investment package over the next 30 years. This is money currently allocated by central government (it is not additional funding).

Under the Councils plans it would fall into the hands of an elected Mayor.

Background reports suggest that the Mayor would operate through a combined authority committee comprised of – based on what is happening elsewhere – three or four unitary authority Leaders. It is possible – depending on whether the York authority can retain its present boundaries – that the committee would be comprised of the members of only one political party.

However, the rub is that it is the Mayor alone who would hold executive decision-making powers.

The Mayor would take on responsibility for police and fire in addition to a whole raft of powers covering transport, digital communications, urban modernisation, housing, planning, skills, business development, energy and the natural environment. This would involve setting up a huge support organisation dwarfing existing local government bureaucracies.

We have seen how the only other individual elected to executive authority in YNY (the Police and Fire Commissioner) became gradually enmeshed in debilitating power wrangles.  This ultimately led to her being jettisoned by her own party.

The old saying that Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely seems to ring true.

The Council has published a menu of changes that it seeks in return for the loss of independence. There is no mention in the programme of the principle of subsidiarity – decisions being taken as close to those who are affected as possible.  There is no mention of any need to fetter the powers of the mayor. There is no “recall” option. There is no requirement for a consensual budget approvals process.

It would be the Mayor who would approve Spatial (strategic) plans for the whole of the area. It would the Mayor who would have compulsory purchase powers which could be used to reshape both town and country.

The list of so called “asks” includes something for everyone.  

Some environmentalists will love the idea that we’ll only – even in remote rural areas – be using electric vehicles in 5 years’ time while the now obligatory “plant more trees” campaign has acquired ritual status in all government documents. The same environmentalist may skim over the plan for agriculture – an important industry in North Yorkshire – the policy for which depends almost entirely on bio science driven change. Concerns about genetically modified crops would be side lined as would be the chlorinated chicken debate and the other less desirable impacts of BREXIT.

Only the truly gullible would be bought off by such illusions.

Will a LibDem dominated York Council executive buy the “pig in a poke”?

 We hope not.

Other devolved structures are available which, although perhaps not producing the same headline expenditure opportunities, would at least retain more independence for the City.

Those other choices, which should include the status quo, need to be exemplified with residents being given a real opportunity to influence which, if any, are pursued further.

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.

Plan for North Yorkshire “Mayor”

Would include York with elections scheduled for 2022

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The York Council has revealed that it is in discussions with other local authorities in North Yorkshire about forming a “combined authority”. Government policy is to devolve some funding to regions but only if they agree to be governed by an elected Mayor.

West Yorkshire has a “combined authority” while South Yorkshire has already elected its own Mayor.

It seems that York may have little choice in the matter.

Details can be found by clicking here.

Consultation is promised prior to the Councils executive meeting on 23rd July. That meeting will apparently detail the Councils expectations of any deal. Council media releases refer to the, ludicrously titled, “big conversation” as the preferred conduit for resident comments (although there are no questions about devolution on the “on line” survey).

While more funding for the region would be welcome, the prospect of power being put into one persons hands in such a large an area as North Yorkshire will give many a sinking felling.

York extracted itself from the North Yorkshire County Council in 1997 in the hope that a unitary authority would be more sensitive to local priorities. The results have been mixed, partly as a result of the highly volatile local political scene.

The only current post which is in any way similar is that of the Police and Crime Commissioner (now incorporating fire) which has been a lamentable failure. The post is hopelessly remote, is not accountable in any real way and, so far, has attracted poorly qualified candidates. The current post-holder seems to have little empathy for the problems of York.

The PCC powers would probably transfer to any new Mayor.

All in all, the obsession national politicians have with the American “city boss” model is profoundly depressing. Decisions taken in Northallerton (or Craven) are unlikely to be any more sensitive to York concerns than those currently determined in Whitehall.

But it does look like this is where things are heading.