Leading political figures in Lincolnshire have found themselves at loggerheads over the latest bid to form a ‘super council’.
Lincolnshire County Council had hoped to get a mandate for a unitary authority in a public referendum on May 4.
Supporters - led by county council leader Coun Martin Hill - claim a single tier of local government would save £150 million over the next five years - or £882,000 a week - see council tax bills slashed and deliver improved services.
The referendum would have been held alongside the county council elections, administered by Lincolnshire’s seven district councils.
But the county council was forced into an embarrassing climb down after the district councils took legal advice. Plans for a separate ‘advisory poll’ suffered a similar fate.
A statement issued by the City of Lincoln Council said legal advice received by the district authorities states that any attempt by the county council to combine their elections with a referendum would be ‘unlawful’, with the plans being ‘contrary to the Election Rules and fraught with danger of litigation’.
This means, in effect, the referendum would need to be held completely separately or on a different day, incurring costs to taxpayers of about
Coun Marion Brighton, leader of North Kesteven District Council, said: “In order to have a fully-informed, mature and thorough debate I think it best for this to be delayed until after the county council’s May elections so that people can consider the detail, the full facts and suggested models for moving forwards. I am sure that all parties will welcome a commitment to work together for a consultation in the autumn.
“There are significant issues surrounding the legality, the cost of over
£1 million, and suitability of a referendum. The legal advice is very clear – our commitment to deliver a safe and effective county council election would have been compromised if the poll had gone ahead in the way that had been proposed.
“To rush such an important decision without giving people chance to gather the facts and make an informed decision would have been irrational, unfair to the public and presumptive.
“If we are to reach a consensus for the good of Lincolnshire, the options, benefits and consequences need to be presented in a proper manner for the public to consider and that will take longer than the nine or so weeks Coun Hill had proposed. They need to know what they are voting on.
“In the meantime, we will continue to pursue our aims and ambitions for developing a strong and vibrant district, where we are closest to the people.”
Coun Ric Metcalfe, Leader of City of Lincoln Council, said: “I and my district colleagues are in favour of a collective debate on the future of local government in Lincolnshire, but to hold a referendum at such an early stage in discussions is ludicrous, especially at such massive cost.”
He also described the notion of a ‘remote unitary mega council’ as ‘ridiculous’ as the range of areas in the county have ‘significantly differing challenges and needs’.
Faced with a £1 million-plus bill for a separate poll, Coun Hill immediately rounded on the district councils and condemned their action as ‘deeply disappointing’.
He said: “The idea was to keep administrative costs to a minimum - and to encourage a high turn out - by holding the two things together.
“Unfortunately, it won’t now be possible which is deeply disappointing.
“For various reasons, some of the district councils are not prepared to co-operate.
“Although I personally don’t agree with their legal and other objections, the county council can’t require them to help with holding a poll.”
A defiant Coun Hill stressed the county council would now explore other ways of securing residents’ backing for a single authority.
Those options could include a postal ballot or a website vote but cynics have thrown doubt on whether the response would be enough to support a ‘super council’ plan.
Ironically, the district council’s actions come just weeks after the county council vetoed a separate proposal for a unitary authority which - supported by the Government - would have attracted millions of pounds of Whitehall investment.
The vast majority of district councils were in favour but county councillors voted against - because the new council would have been controlled by a mayor.
The new proposals would not involve a mayor but it is uncertain what level of support - financial or otherwise - it would have received from the Government.
The new super council would have led to the seven district councils being abolished, along with the county council, replaced by the new body and more powers given to town and parish councils.
The matter will be discussed at a full meeting of the county council on Friday.