Is 'devolution' right for Stamford?
Having lived in Stamford since 1997, Richard Cleaver has always taken a close interest in issues that affect the community he loves. He says he feels "strongly about political issues” and although much has been spoken about Lincolnshire’s bid for devolution, Richard feels the alternative options have not been tabled. Here he gives his view, in his own words, on the future of Stamford’s local governance...
What is the best option for Stamford’s future local governance?
A few weeks ago, the possible re-organisation of our local government hit headlines as Lincolnshire County Council approached the government to resurrect the idea of a single council – a unitary authority covering the whole of Lincolnshire from Scunthorpe in the north to Stamford in the south – a Greater Lincolnshire council replacing its 10 existing councils.
South Kesteven District Council and other district council leaders disapproved of this approach and jointly commissioned research into the issue. Then on Thursday last week the news came through that Whitehall had not chosen Lincolnshire as one of the schemes to proceed at this point.
This is welcome news, as it gives more time for a full public debate about the issue.
The only alternative so far suggested to the single council proposal is to have two councils – one in the north and one in the south.
Rather misleadingly, re-organisation is referred to as ‘devolution’ implying that this move enables Lincolnshire to gain additional powers, responsibilities, and funding from central government. The reality is that, unless any future proposals differ radically from the scheme proposed in 2016, little will change. It is therefore wrong simply to call this ‘devolution’ as it is mostly the exact opposite – it is centralisation of power into just one or two large councils.
Many regions in England have seen district and county councils abolished and replaced by unitary authorities over recent years. Nearby Northamptonshire is in the process of moving from a county council and seven districts to just two councils – North Northants and West Northants.
Do these options offer the best possible deal for Stamford?
If there were a single authority, Stamford would be in the same council area as Scunthorpe, Grimsby, Lincoln, and Gainsborough. If there were two unitary authorities, Stamford would fall under the same one as Boston, Spalding, Sleaford, and possibly Lincoln and Skegness too depending upon where the border was drawn.
However, Stamford does not naturally fit into either arrangement.
- Borders: Unique to Lincolnshire, Stamford is very closely bordered on three sides by three other authorities; Rutland, Peterborough, and East Northants (soon to part of North Northants).
- Public transport links: Rail services run east-west from Peterborough into Rutland rather than north into Lincolnshire. Peterborough is a national hub with direct links to major cities including London and many residents use the line to commute. Bus Routes also connect Stamford more to places outside Lincolnshire.
- Road links: The A1 runs south to north from Peterborough into Rutland not reaching Lincolnshire until it passes South Witham.
- Neighbouring towns and cities: Our nearest cities are Peterborough, Nottingham, Cambridge and Leicester (none in Lincolnshire). Our nearest towns are Oakham, Corby, Bourne, and Market Deeping (only two in Lincolnshire). Leicester is nearer than Boston, and Nottingham is nearer than Lincoln.
- TV region: Stamford is in the East Midlands television region along with Rutland, Leicester, and Nottingham whereas the rest of Lincolnshire is in the East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire region.
- Employment: Stamford attracts a wide range of people due to its transport links and location and therefore has different patterns of employment compared to other parts of Lincolnshire.
So, where does that lead Stamford to in local government reorganisation?
Lincolnshire’s road and rail networks share routes with Leicestershire, Rutland, and Nottinghamshire and therefore a Greater Lincolnshire authority would be unable to improve these acting alone. Improving these networks would require powers to be devolved to an East Midlands regional authority.
Secondly, having local government made more remote by the creation of these unitary authorities would mean less local say over local issues. Also, Stamford has close links to its immediate neighbours and being part of a larger more remote unitary authority would weaken these.
Thirdly, SKDC has forced housing development upon Stamford almost all the way up to its borders. If Stamford remains in a different local authority area from the land bordering it on three sides, then that land could be developed with Stamford having little say over what would effectively be an extension of the town.
And when it comes to local authority housing, does it not make more sense for those who seek it to be on the same waiting list as people in Ketton, Ryhall, and Wittering than to be on the same waiting list as those in Sleaford and Boston?
What is the alternative?
Amalgamating Stamford, Rutland, the Deepings, and Bourne with the surrounding villages of Duddington, Easton, Collyweston, Wittering, Wothorpe, Pilsgate, Barnack, Carlby and the Bythams would create an area with a population of 110,000 which is similar to the smaller unitary authorities. Such an arrangement would end the anomaly of Rutland being England’s only unitary authority with a population of less than 40,000 (the only other one under 100,000 is Hartlepool with 93,000).
It should also end the injustice of Rutland’s council tax being 20 per cent higher than Stamford’s.
This amalg-amation would also give the villages close to the south of Stamford and Rutland a chance be in a smaller, closer authority rather than a larger more remote one.
Such an authority could:
- Gain the same efficiencies as larger ones by entering into joint contracts with neighbouring authorities for services such as centralised procurement, bin collections, payroll, maintaining the electoral roll, trading standards, and council tax collection etc in order to generate economy of scale savings.
- Deliver local democracy on planning, local services, and spending decisions. Only local people would make decisions about local issues. That way, for example, Stamford and Rutland could set the funding it wants for its arts provision and not be constantly having to justify it to councillors from Sleaford, Boston, and Spalding whose towns have poorer arts provision. Similarly, Stamford and Rutland would be free to set its own budget to promote tourism without having to compete against all the other towns in the same large authority for these funds.
- Support devolution of critical services, particularly health, where there is a growing need for people to have more say over their local health provision as exemplified by the recent controversy over the closure of both St Mary’s Surgery and the hospital’s minor injuries unit.
I therefore believe that proposals for local government reorganisation should only be made to central government after proper consideration has been given to:
- The need for an East Midlands regional body with appropriate strategic responsibilities devolved from central government, especially for transport, and
- Redrawing the local boundaries to reflect Stamford’s relationships with neighbouring towns and villages in terms of existing transport links and socio-economic similarities, thus creating a smaller unitary authority with devolved powers to increase local decision making, particularly on local healthcare provision.
It would also be appropriate to review the powers and responsibilities of the area’s town councils at the same time so that all aspects of local government are considered simultaneously.
Finally, whatever the proposals are, they should only be submitted to government after all the people affected have been fully consulted on them. Any changes must have democratic legitimacy.