Council agrees to explore merger despite criticism
Bitter divisions over the creation of a new super authority covering South Warwickshire have been laid bare at Stratford District Council, though the idea has moved a step closer to reality.
During last week's Full Council meeting the authority agreed to the principle of working towards a merger with Warwick District Council, with 34 councillors in favour and one against, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
Although the result of the vote was convincing, some conservative members openly criticised the party leadership for the way the process had been conducted so far.
Members on both sides complained about a lack of consultation, while the argument was made that reforming local government should hardly be top priority during the pandemic.
However it was stressed by the leader of the council Tony Jefferson and fellow cabinet members that the decision was only voting to start exploring the idea, it was not a done deal and that further consultation would be conducted.
Urging councillors to get on board with the proposal, Cllr Jefferson said: “Cabinet have explored the options in depth and are convinced the proposal is the best option by far.”
He added: “This is about making the best strategic decision for this council and the best future for our residents, I urge everyone to support the recommendations as the beginning of a new and exciting journey and a new exciting future for South Warwickshire.”
However almost immediately the leader was met with an explosive attack by his conservative colleague Cllr Whalley-Hoggins, who said the lack of consultation with councillors was wholly inadequate given how important the decision would be.
She said: “To be treated with such distain is totally unacceptable and I refuse to treat those who elected me in the same way as those that are leading us today seek to do.”
She argued that council resources should instead be focussed on helping the district recover from the pandemic for the next 18-months, something that would be affected if officers were concentrating on the council merger.
Criticising the concept of a merger she added: “I want to have officers working for the residents of Stratford-upon-Avon who actually know how to get to Mappleborough Green, or know that little Compton is some distance from Long Compton, I don’t want the services to be run by officers who know nothing about our districts. We are not similar we are different, we are not Leamington, we are not Warwick, we are Stratford-upon-Avon and we are on the world stage. I refuse to support this in its current format, this will be the curtain call on all we hold dear to our hearts, our residents, our district and our heritage is worth so much more than this.”
Fellow conservative Penny-Anne-O’Donnell also raised concerns about the lack consultation with residents, the lack of support so far expressed by the district’s MPs and the increasing ratio of residents to elected members, should the merger take place.
She said: “Why now, ask every member here and their families what their main focus is at present and I suggest it is not local government reform, the topic occupying everybody at present is Covid.”
Cllr Tony Bromwich suggested no merger could possibly take place without a referendum.
He added: “Not one councillor here has been elected on a mandate to create this new super authority.”
Some Liberal Democrat members said a decision on this should be delayed.
Cllr Victoria Alcock: “I can see all the benefits of this, but I can’t see the benefit of doing it now.”
She added: “A six month delay on this would give us time and out officers time to build back our area that as been decimated.”
However in the end a number of councillors from all parties threw their support behind exploring the merger.
Cllr Parry, said: “This afternoon we all have a big decision to make, the biggest decision ever to face councillors here, either in favour or against exploring the unique opportunity for a merger with Warwick District Council to form a South Warwickshire District Council, resulting in savings of £4.6million over the next five years.”
She offered reassurance that there would be public consultation and it was not a done deal and a super district would bring huge savings, improve services and benefit residents.
She warned all councillors against abstaining in the vote saying: “This reflects your inability to make a decision on behalf of your residents, who didn’t vote for you to sit on the fence and be indecisive.”
Defending the timing of the move Cllr Trevor Harvey explained that the timetable of all this was not being set by SDC, but by the government’s impending shakeup of local democracy and Warwickshire County Council, who have already submitted a proposal to create a single county wide unitary authority.
Taking aim at his party colleague at Warwickshire County Council, Cllr Harvey said: “The county council railroaded through their cabinet a proposal to put forward a unitary solution for the whole of Warwickshire, they did not consult the district councils at all, in fact they didn’t consult members of their group. They had to have a meeting after the event where they strongarmed tactic people opposed in order to get that through the county council.”
In a final plea for support deputy leader Cllr Daren Pemberton urged councillors to agree to explore the merger saying: “I accept the point that has been made about all members not being involved enough but please, please don’t let a feeling of slight colour your decision about what’s best for our residents.”
Warwick District Council also voted to support the idea last week.