Local politicians in Northamptonshire have been in a state of excitement in the past few weeks. This isn’t because they’ve all now set their budgets for 2016-17, but because they’ve caught a classic bout of reorganisation fever.
This situation has largely come about because of the perilous state of finances at Northamptonshire County Council, but the announcement by the Oxfordshire districts to seek to establish four unitary authorities which would include the district of South Northamptonshire , effectively abolishing Oxfordshire County Council, has accelerated the debate. These are interesting times for politicians, but does it really resonate with the people that elect them?
None of this would be possible without Section 15 of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which empowers the Secretary of State to reorganise local government without recourse to consultation or primary legislation. Whilst it may appear that councils or MPs in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire are leading the case for reorganisation, they have been prompted to do so following encouragement from the Department for Communities and Local Government. So, this “local call” for reorganisation starts to look and feel far more like a top down process.
I’ve held off in writing about this until I left the employment of one of the affected districts. Not because I know anything more than anyone else, but as someone who operates close to politicians and senior officers, it would not have been appropriate to comment publicly.
It feels to me like reorganisation is inevitable. Some are more up for it than others, but it will happen. Most politicians and senior officers will admit to this privately, but there is a process to be seen to be going through. It all feels a bit contrived as the Secretary of State will ultimately make the decision, not the councillors receiving reports from organisations that they have commissioned to produce recommendations justifying the continued existence of one authority against the amalgamation of others.
Northamptonshire doesn’t have a natural vehicle for devolution. It is politically part of the East Midlands, but looks in various directions for different things. In some ways it is aligned to Cambrigeshire, in others to Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes. My gut feeling is that the area for South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership will become the model for devolution, but this doesn’t resolve the reorganisation conundrum in Northamptonshire.
I suspect we will see a North Northamptonshire Council, comprising the existing areas of Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough. This is a natural geographical fit for the north and east of the county, which is already used for strategic planning and housing delivery. What lies in store for the remainder of the county is less clear. Northampton BC has indicated that it wishes to be a unitary authority, but it is probably too small to be a unitary by itself. An alignment with Daventry seems to be inevitable to boost the population figure required. The known unknown at the minute is the fate of South Northamptonshire. Will it go with Cherwell as proposed or will it be sucked back into a unitary arrangement with Daventry and Northampton?
This change will happen though. I expect a decision to be made by the end of this calendar year and announcement made to cancel next year’s county council election. I suspect that arrangements will be made for shadow unitary councils to come into existence with elections in 2018 and then for the current local government structure in Northamptonshire to be abolished with effect from 1 April 2019. Beyond consultation in the studies commissioned by the county council and the district/borough councils, I don’t imagine the public will get a say on this – the Secretary of State will do what he is enabled by law to do.
I may be wrong, but there is a whiff in the air, reorganisation is on its way.