The elections which took place in May 2022 were to elect 90 councillors for the next 5 years who would serve one year on a “shadow” authority (North Yorkshire County Council, NYCC) to achieve a handover to the new Unitary Authority, North Yorkshire Council (NYC) from the former District Councils that will cease to exist from 31st March 2023.
During this handover period, work has been taking place between Officers and Councillors to develop harmonisation across all the districts of all the services (including Council Tax), contracts (including employment contracts) and representation on outside bodies etc. Services like education, social care, public health, libraries and museums were already delivered by NYCC. Services delivered by the District Councils will, as from 1st April 2023, be taken over by the NYC Unitary Authority e.g. leisure, housing, environmental services, arts and culture, economic development etc. Many of these services have been contracted out by some of the District Councils although some have been retained, so bringing as many of them back in-house in the NYC will mean more local jobs for people with good working conditions. All current staff will transfer over to the new Unitary Authority via TUPE regulations. Council taxes will be collected by NYC instead of at district level and will require harmonisation over a period of time (the proposal is 2-years) to ensure fairness as the 7 districts charge different rates. Overall, this is a huge undertaking which has and continues to require a considerable additional workload for staff who are also trying to do their day job.
From Day 1 (1st April 2023), there must be a seamless delivery of key services (e.g. bin collection) and those supporting vulnerable people (like Looked After Children, Domestic Violence, Public Health etc.). The Conservatives still have an overall majority in the new Unitary Authority but this has been severely reduced. Because of that majority they form the Executive and the majority of decisions are taken there. However, the by-election, which took place on the 9th February, in the Masham Division of NYCC following the death of the sitting Conservative Councillor saw a swing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats reducing their majority even further.
The only check for the Executive is via the Overview & Scrutiny Committees (O&S) around various subjects (Children and Young People, Transport, Economy & Environment, Health & Wellbeing, Care & Independence, Corporate & Partnerships) and the Labour Group has two representatives on each of these. It is the custom in many local authorities that Opposition Members hold the Chairs of O & S Committees but this is not the case at NYCC where the Chairs are appointed by the Executive. This makes it extremely difficult to change policy once it has been agreed by the Executive although it is sometimes possible. With their current reduced majority attendance by Conservative Councillors has greatly improved! It is vitally important that we keep up our campaigning and begin to find suitable local candidates for the election in 2027 because we need to ensure more Labour voices in North Yorkshire at every level.
Whilst we were just coming to terms with the new Unitary Authority, in June 2022, Central Government “invited” NYCC and the City of York Council (CYC) to apply for a new level of devolved government with a Mayor. The devolution deal on offer includes an additional £540 m Mayoral Investment Fund over 30 years, £13.1 m brownfield funding for development from November 2023 to March 2025 and £1.5 m Mayoral capacity (e.g. to set up the Mayoral Office). It should be noted however that those funds are not index-linked and have already been severely reduced due to rising costs and inflation. The final decision on whether to accept the devolution deal will be taken in February 2023 following a period of consultation with the public. However, the result of that consultation is not binding on NYCC or CYC Councillors who will ultimately vote on whether to proceed or not. Work is already underway with a view to holding elections for the new Mayor in May 2024.
A final positive thought, if the opinion polls continue to predict a large Labour majority then the Mayoral elections could be interesting. Either way, it will be an important fight to log as many Labour votes as possible to show that North Yorkshire is not as blue as they think or hope.
CLP Chair, Selby Town Councillor & North Yorkshire County Councillor