Daventry leader in damning assessment over unitary authority progress

Daventry District Council leader Councillor Chris Millar gave an honest appraisal of  where Northamptonshire politics currently stands
Daventry District Council leader Councillor Chris Millar gave an honest appraisal of where Northamptonshire politics currently stands

The leader of Daventry District Council would ‘not be surprised’ if plans to form two new unitary authorities in Northamptonshire were delayed by up to a year.

Councillor Chris Millar raised a host of concerns over the two supersize councils for the North and West of the county that are likely to take over from the seven current district and borough councils, as well as the county council.

In a frank assessment of the current work being done towards shaping the two new councils ready for a 2020 deadline, he also shared concerns that they would not offer the ‘clean slate’ that was hoped in replacing the cash-strapped county council.

He also criticised the 'fantasy numbers' that the county council's stabilisation plan of savings was hoping to achieve.

Speaking to fellow Daventry councillors earlier this week about the current progress being made, he said: “It’s moving on but not as quickly as we want. It’s moving very slowly.

“We are asking how we can get the two new unitary authorities to start off without the burdens of the county council.

“The government has decided it wants to go down this route and we realise that they have the power on this. But we want to let them know the facts so the councils can have that decent start, if they don’t they will soon be in trouble.

“The consultation has been put back by two months, so the government isn’t hitting its own timetable. They want to blame all the problems on the local area, but a lot of the districts and boroughs were successful, and they are being penalised.

“There’s a long way to go but I would not be surprised if the unitary authorities are delayed by a year.”

Daventry will form part of what would be the West Northamptonshire unitary authority, which would effectively see it merge its services with Northampton Borough Council and South Northamptonshire Council under one roof.

The proposals were raised in a report by government-appointed inspector Max Caller in his ‘best value report’ for the county council. Since then government appointed commissioners have also been drafted in to oversee the management of the failing authority.

But before the unitaries are likely to be in place, work is being undertaken to balance the budget as part of a ‘stabilisation plan’, clawing back £35m unfunded deficit from last year and tackling a projected £20m overspend this financial year.

A significant amount of the savings in the stabilisation plan relies on increased tax and business rate collections from the district and borough councils.

But Councillor Millar has joined ranks with Northampton Borough Council leader Jonathan Nunn is raising doubts that the required level of money will be raised.

The Daventry leader, who met with the county commissioners yesterday (Wednesday), told fellow Daventry councillors earlier this week: “We are still not convinced that the county council’s stabilisation plan is going to put it on a level keel by 2020. We are finding it difficult to see how a clean slate can happen. But unless we raise these problems then we are part of the problem.

“The seven borough leaders wrote to the Secretary of State to say that we don’t think the stabilisation plan is going to work. We got a nice letter back. But we want them to convince us this is going to work, because we can’t see it. We don’t think enough tough decisions have been taken on the plan as we see it.

“They want to get up to £11 million out of the boroughs. We can provide £1.7 million of that and there’s going to be a big hole there. We want to deal with real numbers, not the fantasy numbers of the past that led the county council to the position it’s in now.”

Councillor Millar added that the county council’s portfolio holder for finance, fellow Daventry councillor Malcolm Longley, had ‘consistently challenged the stabilisation plan because he’s not all too convinced with it’.

He made the comments during a presentation at Daventry District Council’s scrutiny and improvement committee on Tuesday evening, where he added: “I think it’s going to be interesting to speak to the commissioners.

“We have suggested that the council tax is put up to a more reasonable level, but they seem reluctant to do that.

“We want the unitary authorities to work and recognise the challenges in Northamptonshire. I think the commissioners found it surprising how bad it was. If they think they can take £11 million but we can only get £1.7 million then there’s some big gaps to find.

“Our residents will not come out of this very well. They will be paying more for less services.”