Pandemic is 'worst possible time' to scrap North Yorkshire's councils for devolution, claims senior councillor
The coronavirus pandemic is the "worst possible time" for a major restructuring of local government in North Yorkshire and York, an opposition leader has claimed.
Earlier this summer council leaders were told by the government that in order to unlock a devolution deal, the region's eight county and district councils must be scrapped and one or more unitary authorities set up in their place.
The benefits that devolution would bring - including more funds, powers and a directly-elected mayor - have been hailed by some as "critical" to drive the region's post-pandemic recovery.
But councillor Geoff Webber, leader of the Liberal Democrats on North Yorkshire County Council, has claimed it will only cause more disruption for council services already under pressure from the coronavirus crisis.
“This is the worst possible time for the government to impose this radical transformation in the way local councils look and operate," he said.
"In the midst of a global pandemic and when many residents are relying on the services provided by local councils more than ever, we could do without this council chaos and rival Conservative factions battling it out in the local media."
Councillor Richard Cooper, leader of Harrogate Borough Council, responded by saying services would not worsen under the proposed changes, as they will not happen until 2022 when the pandemic has hopefully abated.
“There is never a good time to re-organise councils because it will always be a time of change and uncertainty for local people, community groups and council staff," he said.
"The government has set some parameters for the changes they want to see – single councils of around 400,000 population which include the City of York in their boundaries.
"If, as Harrogate’s Liberal Democrats want, we ignore these parameters then we will simply get something imposed upon us – something which might be the worst of all worlds."
Political leaders are debating the merits of having one single unitary authority covering North Yorkshire - whilst leaving the City of York intact - or two bodies either side of the A1 as part of the proposed local government shake-up.
They have until the end of this month to submit final proposals to the government before top-level discussions begin.
If a deal is agreed, the new unitary authority or authorities could be formed by April 2022.
North Yorkshire County Council is behind the proposals for one single unitary authority for the whole county, while the seven district councils are proposing the two east/west authorities.
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter