OPPOSITION leaders for an area which has been told to rapidly prepare for the biggest overhaul of local government in nearly half a century have criticised the timing of the move.
Leaders of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent groups on North Yorkshire County Council said while they were not opposed to the creation of one or more unitary authorities across the county and York, the huge amount of preparatory work needed would serve as a distraction for local authorities focusing on recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The political groups were raising their concerns ahead of an expected debate at the first full meeting of the Conservative-led authority since local government minister Simon Clarke told the leaders of the county’s seven borough and district councils, county council and City of York Council, that local government reorganisation had become a requirement of devolution.
The minister has given the nine councils until September to submit proposals to create authorities that would provide all the services, rather than the current situation where district and borough councils provide services such as waste collection and the county authority runs services such as recycling centres.
He told the council leaders that the reorganisation would be a key part of the government’s Covid-19 recovery strategy for the area.
But opposition parties said the reorganisation should be postponed as it would be hugely complex, soaking up council resources at a time when they were facing unprecedented pressures.
Leader of the council’s Independent group Councillor Stuart Parsons said: “What on earth is the British government doing forcing local authorities to move the deckchairs at this time when all the resources should be on protecting people from Covid-19 and restoring the economy.”
Cllr Parsons said the September deadline had been designed to “sneak the reorganisation in the back door without letting anyone deal with the properly”.
He said: “They are forcing it through because they know it is not popular with local authorities.”
Councillor Geoff Webber, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: “It is not the right time for a reorganisation in the middle of the economic collapse and pandemic. If you want to do something that’s unpopular, do it at a time when people can’t give it the consideration it deserves.”
Labour group leader Councillor Eric Broadbent said the government’s policy was ill-advised as North Yorkshire remained in “a very delicate stage of the virus” and the deadline that had been set was very tight.
He said: “Everybody is so busy doing a marvellous job trying to combat this terrible virus, this reorganisation is another distraction from getting on with the main job of protecting people. This is the last thing we want in the middle of a pandemic.”