The big decision on the new office accommodation scheme for Harrogate Borough Council, championed by the ruling Conservative Group, takes place on 15th July.
Having seem lots of the detail, finally, on the scheme, I am deeply concerned that this plan will reap no real extra annually recurring savings over and above a scheme of retaining and updating our current town hall at Crescent Gardens and retaining one other adjacent building, Springfield House (“Plan B”). Though, of course, we are only being given the potential cost savings based on a comparison with the status quo—that of remaining in five offices—that everyone absolutely agrees is not tenable. So there have been no costings assembled on “Plan B”, that would give us at least some figures and projections where we could truly “go compare”.
Because of the ever-growing amount of information that we democratically elected councillors have to keep secret from the very people who are paying for these schemes, I cannot divulge any of the detail—especially the financial details as yet. But it seems that a vital step has been missed out—or not even been started yet—at HBC which makes this whole exercise seem rather “previous” to say the least.
We have not looked strategically at our options at becoming a unitary authority, and the very significant cost savings that this would undoubtedly bring annually.
In more recent years an already impoverished Local Government has been expected to play its part in balancing the nation’s books by the end of the decade. For example, North Yorkshire County Council and Districts have had to make significant savings, in the County’s case alone, around £168 million (actual and projected) between 2011-19.
The Local Government Association (LGA) has published a report that reckons that local authorities could be in the red to the tune of over £19 BILLION by 2020 unless something is done. Many District Councils up and down the country, with much smaller budgets than county councils, could be facing bankruptcy. And many are already exploring ways of providing shared services or moving to unitary or combined authority status.
Recently, Lord Heseltine, in his review of the regions, has come out strongly in favour of unitary authorities at the expense of District and County Councils.
Unfortunately, the conclusion must be drawn that the two tier system is a system we can no longer afford. One recent convert to unitary, Northumberland, has reported savings over a three year period of over £80 million, whilst a recent survey in Lincolnshire has reckoned that a single unitary alone in the county could save up to £30 million.
In the case of North Yorkshire and its districts just think of the salary savings from cutting down from a Chief Executive per authority, savings in sharing back office functions and reducing the number of councillors. But there lies the problem, it would seem. Turkeys just don’t vote for Christmas, but some at least may be inclined to vote for a brand new and unnecessary council office building, it would seem. The 15th July meeting will bring a decision.
Shame we are debating the wrong issue