The Tories dismantling of Northamptonshire councils demonstrates a contempt for local democracy, argues Sally Keeble
As an exercise in political thuggery, there’s not much to match the abolition of all the councils in Northamptonshire.
With the Tories’ national attention focussed on Brexit splits, and Labour’s on our internal rows, the seven Conservative local authorities in the county lined up this summer to vote to scrap themselves. Reluctantly, some said, they accepted the secretary of state’s invitation to disband themselves in favour of two unitary councils.
Actually, the secretary of state was holding an invitation in one hand and a gun in the other. When Northampton attempted a gesture of defiance, it was quelled with a visitation to its Conservative administration by a couple of the local Tory MPs.
The speed and ferocity of their dismantling of a local government structure – a structure that can trace its roots back to 1189 – bears witness to the Tories instinct to cling onto power nationally. The county contains three of England’s key marginal seats: Northampton North (Tory majority 807), Northampton South (Tory majority 1,159) and Corby (Tory majority 2,690).
Looming over them at the next general election was the shredding of the Conservatives’ reputation for competence in the unprecedented bankruptcy of Northamptonshire county council. Not to mention the stench of corruption that continues to hang over a £10 million “loan” made by Northampton borough council for a property development. It may yet be the subject of prosecutions in the new year.
The invitation to submit a reorganisation proposal came in late March 2018. The invitation was also the proposal – two unitaries, along existing local government boundaries, each with populations of no less than 300,000. This was to be submitted by the end of July, a date then extended to the end of August.
No local referendums. Only Labour-controlled Corby council carried out a full consultation of every household. Only a five-week official online consultation carried out by a firm of consultants. In Northampton – a town of 230,000 – only one focus group of 14 people, and one meeting for business people attended by only 17 people.
Resulting, during the week in August when most people are focussed on getting their children ready to go back to school, in all the county’s local authorities holding special council meetings. All but Corby voted for proposals that would divvy up between two new unitary councils Northamptonshire’s £70 million deficit, its historic debts, and its crisis-hit children’s and adults care services. At a cost of £30 million for the reorganisation and £50 million upfront costs for any service transformation. With no funding from the Conservative government to help smooth the transition.
It was the austerity cuts forced on local government that made Northamptonshire’s incompetent Conservative administration collapse. Other local authorities will follow suit, although perhaps not quite so spectacularly.
The lesson for us from Northamptonshire is the focus that the Conservatives’ have on retaining power. Just as in 1986 with Greater London council abolition, the Tories are quite happy to steamroller local democracy if it suits their political purposes.
They know that they have to keep these seats in middle England if they’re to retain power at the next general election. Whilst we have spent the summer fighting our internal battles, the Conservatives have managed to flatten some of the obstacles in their way.
Sally Keeble is a former MP and the Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for Northampton North. She tweets @Sally_Keeble.
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