Response to Government Consultation on Reorganisation of Local Authorities in North Yorkshire
Submitted by City of York Labour Party
- This is the agreed response of City of York Labour Party (York Central and Outer Constituency Labour Parties), Labour Party Councillors (the Labour Group) elected to City of York Council, and the MP for York Central (hereafter “York Labour”), to the Government Consultation on Reorganisation of Local Government in North Yorkshire.
- York Labour firmly supports maintaining the integrity of the current Unitary Boundary of the City of York Council; however, it has significant concerns over the process adopted by the Government in its approach to this local government reorganisation. We consider this to be both arbitrary and inadequate, and argue that the Government should revert to the normal processes of an independent, evidence led process which then undergoes full Parliamentary scrutiny.
- In our response we raise further concerns about the proposals subject to this consultation. With York’s history as a significant seat of power, self-determination and identity for over 800 years, to weaken the integrity of its independence would have a profound impact on the city. York is not only a national icon, but is a magnet, globally, for visitors and, we believe, for inward investment, which in turn serves and supports the people of York. The city itself has the potential to be a catalyst for further benefit to the whole of North Yorkshire, and to weaken its identity and authority would be to their detriment. Finally, the people of York, which the authority is there to serve, identify powerfully with their city. York Labour does not believe that it is right to dilute the unique identity, economy, culture, heritage and social context of York.
The Government’s Reorganisation process
- Local government is a fundamental component of democratic governance. Local authorities have statutory responsibilities to provide local services, procure investment in the economy and infrastructure, and to shape and plan the local environment. They have to lead local communities through management of a balanced budget, and to be held to account through a democratic process, giving local people a real say over their community. While we believe that this is not being accomplished effectively in York currently, we believe that this is result of the choices and decisions of the current administration, rather than the result of the integrity of the boundaries in which the administration governs. By working with local residents, businesses and institutions, and collaborating with other local authorities, local authorities should enable local residents and businesses to articulate their preferences as to the priorities for their community, and the administration should then ensure their delivery. Modern local government is complex, and there are no perfect models for how it should be structured; however, good leadership should draw on proven best practice. Therefore, change needs to be carefully considered through a proper review process, which also ensures the involvement and agreement of those affected.
- In the 1990s, when the initial rounds of unitarisation (including York’s) took place, the process began with a Government white paper setting out the proposed new arrangements and processes, which allowed proper public engagement and visibility, through legislation subject to scrutiny by Parliament. The actual process of local reorganisation was undertaken by an independently led commission, taking evidence and undertaking public consultation on bids to become unitary authorities, before making recommendations to the Secretary of State. Parliamentary boundary change remains an independent process through the Boundaries Commission, which reports to Parliament following an extensive public consultation process. By contrast, on this occasion no white paper has been issued, so there is no proper basis for the current round of restructuring that has been tested with the public and Parliament. Proposals involving significantly increased size limits for new authorities have been given without any justification other than generalised and unsubstantiated references to increased efficiency and cost cutting, but with no reference to democratic function or legitimacy.
- As the House of Commons briefing note on Unitary Local Government (November 2020) makes clear, most research evidence is equivocal about whether cost savings are available from mergers of local government into larger units. In one example, the University of Toronto analysed the merger of six lower-tier councils into Toronto City Council in 2008. They concluded that the merger had improved financial resilience in the new single council, and given Toronto a stronger voice in economic development matters, but added that no visible cost savings had been achieved, and that participatory forms of governance had reduced.
- They also reference a series of studies pointing to the effects of scale varying between services, with “the biggest spenders in local government showing the weakest size effect”. A Joseph Rowntree study noted that “The political culture and management style of a County, District or Borough are widely accepted as being more important in determining how efficient and effective an authority is.”
- The report concluded: “It does not appear possible to argue a conclusive case for a strong and one-directional link between population size and efficiency or effectiveness. There are some services or functions or specialised parts of some functions or services where population size does have a measurable effect in determining costs or effectiveness. But there is no one size-range which performs better than others across the whole range of services. It is not possible to say larger authorities perform, on the whole, better than smaller… The combined weight of other factors affects performance more than does size.”
- In conclusion, the premise by which this reorganisation is taking place is not supported by policy. Arbitrary size limits have been advocated by Government without justifiable evidence; this is a major retrograde step and fundamentally undemocratic. We believe in self-determination, from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, and we would want this Government to listen to the people of York and surrounding districts to determine our natural communities and where people feel connected to, rather than imposing an unnatural fit. Understanding local economic flows and how services are best delivered to York and North Yorkshire should lead Government’s desire to advance society, and yet these matters have not been prioritised in this consultation.
- York Labour would therefore prefer that the current local government re-organisation proposals were abandoned pending the Government’s bringing forward a new white paper or equivalent. This would outline the case for further restructuring, and the basis for it, for public consultation and debate, include an open independent process for reviewing specific local government arrangement proposals in different localities, and focus on securing the strongest local economy and the highest standard of public services delivery, underpinned by strong democratic relationships.
Do you support the proposal from the councils?
- York Labour’s starting point is to ensure that there is effective decision making, representation and accountability. It is important that elected representatives have a relationship with the place they are given to represent, that they can be held to account by residents and their communities, and that they can fully engage in the democratic functions of local government to determine the environment by which the people work and live. Therefore York Labour believes that there are significant flaws in the options presented, since both result in large local authorities replacing the current local government structure. However, between these models, we believe that the City of York should continue to maintain the integrity of its current boundaries, which is only possible in the North Yorkshire single authority proposal.
- York Labour does not feel that residents in York and North Yorkshire will feel any connection to the other option of two new unitary authorities – east and west – arbitrarily splitting the County with no cognisance of the importance of the City of York’s unique assets in providing a strong core to the economic and social context of the rest of North Yorkshire. Unitary York had overwhelming public support when it was established as independent of the former North Yorkshire County Council in the 1990s, and there is no evidence that this position has changed. The services and needs of York as a dense compact city, and the structure of its economy, are in complete contrast to those of the current Selby, Scarborough and Ryedale Districts with their rural and coastal geography, highly dispersed communities and different character and concerns. North Yorkshire East has no natural coherence to the City of York, and this proposal will lack political legitimacy and have little relevance to the dominance of the rural economy of North Yorkshire East, or to the social context which differentiates York from the rest of the County. Such disparities will be difficult to manage and prioritise. The evidence of past reorganisations, amalgamating areas of completely different nature, character and attitudes, is not good. Nonetheless, we are open to change where that fits in with people’s natural sense of place and locality.
- The case has not been made by the supporters of either of the options put forward for fundamental reorganisation of Local Government in North Yorkshire, either in respect of an improvement in democratic accountability or efficient delivery of services. If concern is only to address economies of scale in services, then there is a case to be made as to the relevance of some services to be shared, for instance back office functions, as has been shown elsewhere.
- The consultations conducted by the present CYC administration has not sought to explore the validity of local government reorganisation in North Yorkshire and has therefore been woefully inadequate. While over 3,260 residents have clearly expressed their preference for the Unitary Authority boundary of City of York Council to be maintained, there has been no other objective demonstration that either of these options have been held up to rigorous scrutiny, and no evidence of relevant support for the North Yorkshire East/West proposal. Had City of York Council or the Government undertaken a full and proper consultation and fully engaged residents, businesses and agencies across the city, evidence would have been established of the preferences of local people in York.
- Further, a thorough process of consultation would have drawn out the challenges facing York for the long term, and then would have been able to evidence the proposed structures necessary for York and the rest of North Yorkshire to provide for the needs of the people living in the County and City of York. This work has not been undertaken. Without any coherent government policy on devolution, it is difficult to assess either of these proposals for reorganization or to understand their rationale.
- The greatest challenge facing this or any government in the coming years is climate change. We see no sign that this aspect has even been considered in the reorganization proposals. Neither proposal really addresses the economic necessity for their remodelling nor the means by which local democracy can thrive.
- In summary, given the options presented to us by Government, York Labour supports the option of the City of York Council remaining as it is, and opposes merger with other authorities to create a unitary eastern authority. However, York Labour argues that steps should be taken as part of the reorganisation process to mitigate some of the deficits of the NYC\CYC as it presently stands.
Our detailed response
Is the councils’ proposal likely to improve local government and service delivery across each area? Specifically, is it likely to improve council services, give greater value for money, generate savings, provide stronger strategic and local leadership, and create more sustainable structures?
- This response, both to this question and the consultation as a whole, is underpinned by a series of key propositions. They are:
- City of York Council (“CYC”) is structurally underfunded. That underfunding is understood to have arisen from the terms determined under the settlement arrived at when CYC became a unitary authority in the 1990s, combined with the impact of the withdrawal of the Government Grant over the last decade and lack of replacement funding. The monies on offer for York in the devolution settlement will not begin to address CYC’s funding demands. Any reorganisation must seek to address that underfunding, identifying in detail CYC’s financial position and providing a mechanism to address underfunding where it exists; current proposals fail to do this.
- Unlike the majority of the present North Yorkshire County Council area, much of York’s developmental and strategic interests such as transport generally, travel to work, and economic development are connected with the Leeds City Region, reflected in York’s existing associate membership of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. Its housing market is recognised as overlapping with Selby, but both are again significantly influenced by Leeds and West Yorkshire. Furthermore, in terms of York’s travel to work area, the two prime origins of inward commuting for work in York are East Yorkshire and Leeds, with Selby third and Ryedale trailing behind Harrogate and Hambleton combined. Therefore York looks west rather than east economically.
- York will need to build strategic partnerships in transport, as well as in health and social care. Thus, York requires a governmental structure which recognises, accepts and positively promotes York’s interest in looking Westward for many of its developmental needs; East and South for housing: and North or North East for others (such as tourism).
- While it has been argued that a merger of the county and district authorities will produce economies of scale, as indicated earlier the actual evidence from past reorganisations suggests this will probably not occur.
Improving local government, services and service delivery
The NYC\CYC option
- Due to the underfunding of City of York Council, no savings will be generated from the York footprint in this model and there is no evidence that further savings would be generated from the wider County either. The County’s very large geographic spread is likely to work against this. If the new North Yorkshire Unitary Council is to be responsive to its local communities, they will need more local subsidiary structures, management and delivery arrangements, particularly for the more locally oriented services which the districts traditionally provided. Costs would likely increase. Research in previous rounds of reorganisation has shown that any proposed savings are purely speculative and claims for savings in 1996, for example, were completely undermined by a number of factors such as the bidding up of salaries for chief officers.
The unitary eastern authority option
- The large geographic spread remains an issue in the unitary eastern option – the eastern part is 65 miles north to south and 45 miles east to west. This will still require devolved service delivery and management, contrasting with the existing York Unitary Authority’s ability to have a very simple flat management and delivery structure because of its compactness. If York is subsumed within a wider footprint of North Yorkshire East, then there will be relentless stress between rural and urban priorities since the footprint of York is significantly different to the needs of rural North Yorkshire. This is so not least in addressing urban socio-economic disadvantage through the provision of statutory and voluntary organisations, transport priorities and economic and infrastructure investment. Such disparities require specific solutions which would not be relevant to the rest of this proposed authority. A clear urban/rural split is required, and this is evidenced by the different services which are currently offered by the different authorities, which have been developed strategically over many years, recognising the uniqueness of the different authority population needs.
- If York loses its status as a unitary authority, the current climate change strategy will be lost with it. The City Council is about to sign off a road map to make its own services carbon neutral by 2030 and keep the outputs of the local economy within the 1.5 degree limit. Planning is being coordinated with the Local Enterprise Partnership, whose strategy on carbon net zero will also be finalised this year and the University of York is advancing its work for a local green new deal to be generated out from York. If York were to be absorbed into a unitary eastern authority, then carbon reduction at a city level would be stalled and the opportunity to show leadership in this critical decade would be lost. The carbon reduction solutions for rural areas are very different and would require different solutions.
- We note that the word “democracy” does not appear in any of the questions posed in this Consultation. At its heart local government is about local democracy. Voters can choose which services they want or do not want, and the extent of the financial contribution they are prepared to make to services, through the local democratic process. Being merged into a unitary eastern authority would represent a very significant loss of democratic accountability for York residents. Interestingly, those promoting the unitary eastern option make a strikingly similar point in support of their proposal, pointing out that an east\west split is more democratically accountable from the viewpoint of the District Councils than the alternative on offer to them, a North Yorkshire Council. Thus, those who support this very proposal implicitly accept the argument that York’s democratic accountability would be diminished if their proposal were successful.
- In this increasingly digital age, distance is less of an obstacle for some than it might have been years ago. However, due to the expense, public bodies do not generally have top quality technology. It is moreover simply harder to communicate with a large, physically distant, public body than a smaller, local one, (particularly for the old, vulnerable and disadvantaged), and a smaller local body is more likely to be responsive to individual approaches.
- These two issues of democracy and accessibility are likely to combine to the significant detriment of York residents in a merged authority. Services will be more difficult to access, and it will be difficult for an individual or business to effect change.
- We are concerned too about the very different nature of the four local authorities. While York and Selby have some commonalities, rural Ryedale and coastal Scarborough are very different in nature. York has little in common with Ryedale, a rural area, or with the Scarborough area, a coastal region with all the now well recognised issues that coastal areas face. For example, within the city of York there is a highly developed bus network. It links to Park and Ride schemes, and rail transport. It has improved substantially since the introduction of a unitary CYC. It is effective, popular and very well used, supporting the local economy and tourism industry. It is hard to imagine how moving to a unitary eastern authority could do anything but act to the detriment of that service into the future. York is an inherently urban authority and its transportation schemes – which have been warmly acknowledged in various grants from government – reflect this. A merger into a unitary eastern authority – with a mix of urban, rural and remote areas – would inevitably lead to deterioration in transport schemes.
- We believe York would move from being able to focus its services and set its priorities for the benefit of the population of York, into an authority where the focuses and priorities would be set to address the disparate needs of widely differing areas within that authority. That is not likely to lead to improved services in York, not least in areas of socio-economic deprivation which are far more dominant in the urban environment. Rather, one can anticipate less focused, and less appropriate, service provision for York, since the dominance of political power will be represented by those from rural communities and therefore will have different priorities. This would further entrench inequalities and disadvantage those living in York.
Value for money, savings
- The proposed arrangement of a NYC\CYC split will involve little change to the existing financial arrangements and no savings will be made.
- The promoters of the unitary eastern authority have recognised that York has funding issues, but have not taken any steps to conduct an analysis of their extent. Thus, it is doubtful whether any of the ambitious proposed savings arising from the formation of that authority will translate into actual savings.
- It is unclear whether the plans of those who promote the unitary eastern authority would involve an increase (or decrease) in Council tax for any of the residents of that unitary area, though the indications are that York residents who currently have a lower Council tax than the other three component areas will see an increase up to the likely new common level, and yet are unlikely to see any benefit from this.
- Taken overall it is unclear whether any of the suggested savings will materialise. Moreover, is in not clear if any savings that do emerge will mean either better services for York, or lower Council tax. The risk must be that (in the absence of financial reassessment) so far as York is concerned, services will decline and Council tax rise.
Strong strategic local leadership
- The NYC\CYC split will involve little change to the existing leadership in York. Looked at from York’s perspective any leadership provided in a unitary eastern authority would be not be “local” to York in the same way that its present leadership is. The capacity for strong leadership in any such unitary eastern authority is likely to be diluted by its disparate nature, given it will have to meet many widely differing demands.
A sustainable structure
- The unitary eastern option is unlikely to be popular because there are not enough commonalities across the whole of the area: York and Selby share some common needs like housing and the economic influence of West Yorkshire, but they both differ significantly from rural Ryedale and the coastal Scarborough area, which in turn differ from each other. We think that in merging these particular authorities, the Government risks creating further unstable governmental institutions adding to those that presently exist. The 1972 reorganisation pulling York services up to County level did not last, and there is likely to be a similar ground swell against the unitary Eastern option involving York. We think it will be subject to sustained criticism and a wish to unpick it in the future. Consideration also needs to be given to staff working in local authorities. An East/ West unitary option would likely result in a large number of staff undergoing a TUPE transfer to a new employer, with likely disruption to vital front line services.
- Where it is proposed that services will be delivered on a different geographic footprint to currently, or through some form of joint arrangements, we question whether this is likely to improve those services. It is hard to see how, for example, children’s services, waste collection and disposal, adult health and social care, or planning are likely to benefit. It is no coincidence that currently there are no collaborative working arrangements with the eastern authorities of North Yorkshire and York, since there is no commonality. However, there are current links in existence between City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council in important areas such as safeguarding, which an east / west option could undermine.
- Looking initially at the NYC\CYC proposal: the CYC does not have a boundary with the unitary West Yorkshire Authority. That lack of a boundary to CYC’s strategically important neighbour to the West is a very significant impediment to strategic planning. As the only city in North Yorkshire, York’s connectivity to Leeds remains a central to future economic development and a shared interest in the development of relevant infrastructure.
- In this option it is crucial to have joint working bodies between NYC, CYC and other stakeholders, with York having a powerful voice and agency, to ensure it is able to play its central role in strategic planning for the city. To give two examples:
- One of York’s primary travel to work routes, to the west, will have to pass through NYC to reach the West Yorkshire Authority area. The ability for CYC to continue to work directly with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority on this issue will be crucial.
- Due to the high cost of housing in York (whether to rent or buy), many of those who work in York, or who come into central York to shop, for business, for entertainment, and for education, live in the proposed NYUC area or in East Yorkshire. The York and Selby housing markets are recognised as closely linked in planning terms, but as indicated earlier York has wider housing links. Strategic planning in housing will be required between CYC and the wider area east and west.
- A further major concern for York, in connection with this proposal, is the significant imbalance between a new NYC and CYC. North Yorkshire Council will be about three times the size of CYC in terms of population, and in the absence of any steps to remedy the situation, each authority will have the resources, bargaining power and influence of an authority of its size. That disparity of power and influence is compounded by CYC’s structural underfunding. CYC will have limited traction on its own in negotiating with other larger local authorities in the region, public bodies and government. CYC could, and should, join with a North Yorkshire Council in any negotiation or bidding processes where there was a commonality of interest. However, from time to time there will inevitably be CYC policies where negotiation or bidding with outside bodies, for example South Yorkshire or West Yorkshire, or central Government, was required, and where the voters and elected representatives of North Yorkshire Council did not wish to pursue that policy, leading to conflict.
- CYC should not have an effective veto exercised upon its democratically determined aspirations simply because it does not have the support of a different local authority, with a different electorate and different elected representatives, and because, owing to its small size and underfunding, it does not have the agency to act on its own. Such a situation would be profoundly undemocratic. Part of the answer to this concern might be a range of strong local joint public bodies.
- York Labour seeks a commitment from Government that having created the NYC\CYC authorities in this reorganisation, it would give due weight to the aspirations of the people of York rather than treat CYC as a semi-detached adjunct of a North Yorkshire Council. That commitment should be given publicly.
A unitary eastern authority
- Many of the areas where there has been housing and economic development to the south of York, in what is presently the Selby District Council area, would be in the unitary eastern authority. However, there is substantial development taking place between York and Harrogate; there are also important rail and road links between these two cities used heavily for travel to work. Harrogate is proposed to be in the unitary western authority, so some thought would need to be given to joint working.
- There is a very clear danger for York in this option: that York’s need for strategic planning looking westward is given insufficient weight, or simply lost, in a larger authority with very different priorities. In a democratic body, such as a local authority, ultimately it should be for the voters and elected representatives in that authority as a whole to set its priorities. That is the reason for our concern in respect of strategic planning for York in a unitary eastern authority.
- Whatever alternative is adopted, we would urge the creation of a regional body to devise policy and oversee progress on a Green agenda to address the Climate and Bio-diversity Emergencies. We would be open to discussion as to whether that body should consist of NYC, CYC (or the two unitary authorities) and West Yorkshire, or perhaps a wider formulation of Yorkshire and Humberside.
Is the council’s proposal also likely to impact local public services delivered by others, such as police, fire and rescue, and health services?
- There appears to be no appetite in either proposal to include the bringing together of boundaries of Health and Local Government. The pandemic has taught the importance of joint working in two key areas: public health and social care. Under current Government proposals for health and care reorganisation, the model being advanced within the Humber Coast and Vale ICS footprint recognises the need for a distinct health offer in York, due to the health demography and inequalities that exist in the city.
- In respect of Police and Fire and Rescue, where these services are delivered on a North Yorkshire wide basis, there are different concerns for York arising from the two options. In the NYC\CYC option, York would be dominated by a much larger, mostly rural and stronger neighbour. The clear risk is that CYC would have difficulty making its voice heard in such an arrangement, and that Policing and Fire and Rescue priorities would largely be set so as to meet the needs of the area of the North Yorkshire Council, ignoring York.
- In an eastern unitary authority, York would be left to compete with the other areas of that authority for a voice in respect of Policing and Fire and Rescue. The unitary eastern authority is a disparate area and will have very different demands on these services, making it more difficult to obtain the services York needs from these services.
- The eastern unitary authority is likely to be highly damaging to the voluntary and community sector. The strategic voice for the VCS in York, York CVS, would be lost in an EUA. It, and the corresponding body in North Yorkshire, Community First Yorkshire, would have to split in two between the two unitary authorities, leading to years of transition, confusion and a loss of services to local service users. This is what happened in 1996 where many VCS organisations had to make staff redundant as they had no idea right up to the transition date as to which authorities would be funding them. The footprint of charities have developed over decades, if not longer, to meet the needs of local people. Relating to, and commissioning from a more remote authority would weaken the opportunities of the sector which is currently providing a strategic role in the social infrastructure of York. From this point of view again, the NYCC/CYC split makes sense, the unitary eastern authority is destructive. York in this arrangement would be part of an authority covering urban, rural and remote areas and whatever VCS body emerges from this arrangement would have an impossible task in meetings the needs of such a diverse constituency.
- The case for a fundamental reorganisation of Local Government in North Yorkshire has not been made out. But of the two options being proposed, York Labour strongly prefers the single unitary North Yorkshire authority, to operate alongside the existing unitary City of York Council.
- The options put before us in this consultation present significant challenges and risks for York into the future. There is the potential, if the wrong decisions are made at this point, for York to become a relative backwater, underfunded, and unable to implement the strategic decisions it needs to put in place.
- We wish to see our city as vibrant, successful, environmentally aware, a magnet for people and business, and with governance which meets the needs and aspirations of its population. We hope that the representations we have made in this response, whilst at times critical, are seen in the constructive spirit in which they are offered.
Dr Rory Allen
Chair, York Central and Outer Constituency Labour Parties
HH Clive Heaton QC