In a letter to North Yorkshire County Council received yesterday, Simon Clarke MP confirmed that its plan for one council to cover the county could be submitted if it chose to proceed.
The county sought assurances from Mr Clarke after the claims from the seven district councils, which would be scrapped under any new arrangement, that the minister had indicated a preference for authorities no bigger than 400,000 people.
The letter stated: “As you know and we have discussed, we believe areas such as North Yorkshire moving to unitary status with more sustainable and efficient councils can have significant benefits for local people and businesses, including improved and more affordable local services, stronger and more accountable local leadership, and by removing a layer of governance enabling town and parish councils and local communities to be genuinely empowered.
“As I have always made clear, whilst various population ranges have been mentioned as providing in general terms a starting point for considering establishing a unitary council, the particular circumstances of each case must be considered.
“In the case of North Yorkshire it is clear to me that a unitary council with a population of 610,000, as you mention, would not be out of scope.”
North Yorkshire County Council has welcomed the Government’s challenge to remove the current two-tier system and is clear that the county should not be broken up.
The proposals from the district councils would be to create two unitary authorities split east and west of around 400,000 people under a metro mayor.
The plans would include City of York Council, which is already a unitary council, though its leader, Cllr Keith Aspden, has said he would oppose any attempt to change the city’s boundaries.
Cllr Carl Les, Leader of North Yorkshire County Council, said: “I thank the minister for clarifying the issue around whether a single council would be within the range of Government’s plans and I hope this lays the counter-argument to rest once and for all. It’s there in black and white to be read by anyone who would like to see it so now we get on with the important business of preparing our bid.
“The timescales are tight and time is of the essence – the moment is now and we have a very strong case to argue.
“Not only will a new single, strong, sustainable council for North Yorkshire protect outstanding services which safeguard our most vulnerable people, but it is the only bid that will keep the county together and prevent the huge disruption to frontline public services that splitting them up would deliver.
“It will also enable a double devo deal by which we will empower local communities by handing down additional powers and budgets to town and parish council who want them and give people a stronger say via a network of community forums based around market town areas.”
The county council says its plan would save tax-payers around £25million each year and would “supercharge” the county’s regeneration prospects
The government has not yet officially confirmed when the plans for North Yorkshire and York devolution must be submitted but all involved are working to a deadline sometime in September.
In response to today's news Cllr Steve Siddons, the Labour leader of Scarborough Borough Council, insisted that Mr Clarke had previously told the district leaders that 400,000 people was the “optimum” size for a unitary authority.
He added: “At the end of the day it is not just about numbers but it is also about geography.
“I am not sure how many people in Scarborough would identify with Northallerton and Craven and vice versa.
“They would identify more with Ryedale and York and places on the A64 corridor where they go to work and shop.
“Each bid should be judged on its merit, devolution is not one size fits all as each area is distinct. In Leeds, a unitary of 500,000 people may work but that does not mean it will in North Yorkshire.”
Cllr Siddons added that he also feared a North Yorkshire super council would lead to an “unequal marriage” with York.
He added: “In that instance, you would have a leader of a North Yorkshire unitary council overseeing more than 600,000 people and a Mayor whose total area would be around 800,000.
The leader of that council would have almost as much power as the Mayor, that would not work.”
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