Friends of Northampton Castle’s response to consultation about Local Government re-organisation in Northamptonshire.

QUESTION– is the councils’ proposal likely to improve local govt and service delivery across Northamptonshire?
Specifically will it give greater value for money, generate savings, provide stronger strategic and local leadership and create more sustainable structures?

Viability

Friends of Northampton Castle have a continuing interest in the viability of local institutions such as the County and Borough (Northampton) Council because of our aim to “Make Northampton’s Past Part of its Future”. Since 2011 we have been advocating for the creation of a heritage park in Northampton town centre, including several local Grade 1 and 11 listed buildings and the archaeology of Northampton Castle. We have looked to both Councils to take a leadership role in supporting an objective which is both educational and of economic and social benefit. We are concerned that the very process of de-constructing local councils will result in a lack of focus on such projects as ours.

There are continuing issues around funding, both before and after such a re-organisation, counter- productive to investment in the heritage of Northampton. We note that estimates presently suggests funding gaps of £60m and £50m respectively in County budgets for 2018-9 and 2019-20. The proposals for change suggest only savings of £12m per year on present arrangements and those only realised after costs of re-organisation in the region of £22m to £29m are met. Such estimates must to some extent be speculative, but they offer little hope of the creation of strong and viable new Councils replacing those that presently struggle.

We note that the previous consultation undertaken did not provide details of the costs of change, or indicate the low percentage of the recurring savings. It seems likely that such low savings will evaporate fairly quickly and do not therefore offer a sustainable basis for the new unitaries, especially when the existing deficit in the Northamptonshire County Council budget is taken account of.

Distraction

While the present Councils in Northamptonshire spend their time and energy on trying to manage these administrative changes, there is likely to be even less interest shown in supporting the sense of identity and community pride which heritage projects such as ours can bring. We note with interest that the body employed to undertake consultation in the area acknowledges that there is a considerable body of opinion in the Northampton and West Northants area wishing to see a third unitary based on Northampton. While the report claims that overall respondents gave little salience to identity as a rationale for how change should be made, it is clear that many people and organisations were actually influenced by a sense of identity ( eg with a rural as versus urban area).

Northampton‘s heritage is one of self government since medieval times, of playing a role in national historic events ( eg. in the trial of Thomas Becket or the battles for the Magna Carta). In a large and rapidly growing urban area, acknowledgement of the past can and should provide confidence in the future. It is a significant part of a Council’s role in local leadership to support and develop that understanding. It is difficult to see how a West Northamptonshire entity could prioritise that urban history.

QUESTION : taken in the round, do you support the proposal from the Councils? Do the unitary councils proposed by the Councils represent a credible geography?

Practical problems

There is no evidence from the papers so far circulating that the project to collapse all the Councils in Northamptonshire and rebuild on the basis of two large unitaries has been thought through with any granularity. For example, it is not clear what will happen to the Northamptonshire Record Office, what will happen to present arrangements for archaeological artefacts (some presently lodged at Chester Farm and with other material at Northampton Central Museum) or even whether there will be a common policy on heritage generally. Who will protect our heritage while this goes on? We fear that in a massive exercise such as this, especially one based on such a shaky financial foundation there will be a great deal of risk to responsibilities being lost between entities and indeed, just being lost. It would be ironic indeed, if because the County Council previously embarked on a grandiose “Next Generation” development without testing the evidence as to its effects, we now saw the County broken into unviable units with untold and unplanned for consequences. In these circumstances we cannot support the proposed reorganisation. We do not believe that the evidence presented is sufficient to make such a fundamental change with such major consequences.

QUESTION : is there a different reorganisation which would have complied with the Secretary of State’s invitation etc?

Friends of Northampton Castle are concerned to ensure that heritage, with its potential for economic and social benefit , receives support and leadership from local government in Northamptonshire. We note that the Secretary of State has placed a particular restriction around population numbers which seems to remove the possibility of a Unitary Northampton. Though it is asserted that this restriction is based on evidence about the delivery of children’s services, the two very recent assessments quoted do not seem to be as clear cut as is implied. It seems more likely that differences in output or success depend on a number of variables not just this one.

In the circumstances we cannot offer any new prescription for change, only an urgent request for change only to be embarked upon incrementally and with careful assessment of its likely effects.

QUESTION: Do you have any other comments?

No.

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