Should Grimsby and Scunthorpe unite to form one 'super council'?

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 10 Jan 2019

The year 1996 marked the start of freedom for those on the south bank who could not stand being forced under the umbrella of Humberside.

Out of the ashes of Humberside County Council in April that year came the formation of North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire unitary authorities, putting the power bases back into Grimsby and Scunthorpe respectively.

But almost 23 years have passed since those councils were made and, with the recent progress of devolution in some parts of England, there has been a call for fresh changes.

Areas such as Manchester, Liverpool and Teesside have all benefited from big money plans which have seen Westminster power and money transferred to elected mayors in the region.

Lincolnshire had the same style of deal agreed with the government in 2016, only for two councils – Lincolnshire County Council and South Kestevan District Council – to reject the 10-year £450 million settlement. The all-or-nothing nature of the offer meant the two councils were able to wreck the deal, despite the county's other eight ratifying the terms.

The Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal was rejected in 2016

Both North East Lincolnshire Council (NELC) and North Lincolnshire Council (NLC) have got on with securing Government funds in other ways since the collapse of the deal and the pair have distanced themselves from any talk of joining a wide-arching Yorkshire and Humber devolution proposal.

That has not stopped Martin Vickers , MP for Cleethorpes (a constituency which crosses the two local authority boundaries), from calling for ministers to re-shape the lay of the land in Lincolnshire.

He used the final debate in Parliament before the Christmas break to propose creating more unitary councils – a move that could see East Lindsey and West Lindsey district councils amalgamated into a "super council" with its NELC and NLC neighbours.

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Unitary councils (what NELC and NLC are) act as a one-stop shop – those living within the council boundaries know there is one organisation to deal with if they need or have issues with a public service, such as bin collections or social care. Residents have one set of local ward councillors.

But in the two-tier county council system, it is more complicated. If you live in East Lindsey, for example, housing issues and planning applications will be dealt with by the local district council, but education and transport projects will be dealt with by the county council in Lincoln.

Both the district and the county council hold local elections for people to choose their representatives, meaning there are two sets of councillors to work with.

Martin Vickers, Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, has proposed creating 'super councils' across Lincolnshire(Image: Jon Corken)

Mr Vickers, whose constituency also covers the Barton-Upon-Humber area, wants to see an end to the two-tier system.

Speaking in Parliament, he said: "I hope some future government will consider imposing unitary authorities across the country, because I think they are far more efficient and would lead to more resources being made available to provide frontline services."

There is a case to suggest unitary councils save money. When Northampton County Council and its seven district councils effectively went bust last year, with a budget shortfall of £70 million, it proposed replacing its set-up with two unitary councils to cut costs.

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As well as saving money on administration by combining back office functions, Mr Vickers said he thought the idea of creating larger unitary authorities could help to attract new Government money – cash Lincolnshire missed out on when the devolution deal collapsed two years ago.

The Conservative backbencher discussed the proposition with Communities Secretary James Brokenshire when they met last month.

"I said to him that, in my view, we should have three unitary authorities-style councils for all of Lincolnshire but he took the Government line that these things have to come from the bottom up," said Mr Vickers.

The secretary of state might not want to be seen to be meddling in local affairs but, according to those who met with him last summer, Mr Brokenshire is said to have suggested that creating a northern Lincolnshire "super council" could be the way to break the devolution deadlock in the region.

Mr Brokenshire is understood to have told MPs in July that one way of reviving the Greater Lincolnshire plans would be for NELC and NLC to unite and form a combined authority. Once set up, the pair could then invite district councils in the county to join the new body and grow it from there.

Communities secretary James Brokenshire is said to have suggested creating a northern Lincolnshire combined authority

It would effectively get around the county council's objection to having a mayor for Lincolnshire – one of the principle reasons councillors blocked the devolution move last time.

Publically, the idea of combining the respective might of Grimsby and Scunthorpe town halls does not appear to have any takers.

Councillor Ray Oxby, Labour leader of North East Lincolnshire Council, said that, following the collapse of the Greater Lincolnshire devolution model, his team had turned its full attention to the regenerating Grimsby town deal.

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He said: "We supported the original idea for a Greater Lincolnshire body several years ago because we thought it was the best for our area, but other authorities ultimately rejected it and since then have continued to develop relationships with our colleagues on the Humber and beyond, all with the intention of ensuring we get the best of any deals for our residents.

"That will remain the case with any proposals, but it would be a bit futile to comment on this any further at this stage when our current priority remains delivering economic and social prosperity for North East Lincolnshire.’"

Grimsby MP Melanie Onn , an opponent of the Greater Lincolnshire deal, has voiced her dissatisfaction at the idea of playing around with council set-ups, labelling the proposals "out of touch".

Privately, Labour would also know that a "super council" in the region would also, given the political make-up of northern Lincolnshire, almost certainly be Tory-run.

Melanie Onn MP consulting on proposals for Greater Lincolnshire devolution in August 2016. The Grimsby MP opposed the concept (Image: Peter Craig)

The Labour frontbencher said: "The Tory plan to lump Lincolnshire local authorities together was roundly rejected just a couple of years ago. Creating a bigger council would make decision making less accountable and less accessible and give places like Gainsborough a say on what goes on in Great Grimsby.

"These calls for unnecessary structural upheaval are out of touch with the real needs of residents of our area. What we urgently need is this Government to reverse the drastic council cuts to make Grimsby safer, cleaner and more prosperous."

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Councillor Rob Waltham, Conservative leader of North Lincolnshire Council, said the authority's focus was not on remodelling Lincolnshire's political landscape.

"Reorganisation in local government is absolutely not on our agenda," said the Brigg and Wolds ward councillor.

"We are far too busy delivering on an ambitious job creation plan for North Lincolnshire."

North Lincolnshire Council leader Rob Waltham says council reorganisation is not on the authority's agenda

Mr Waltham said the council already worked "closely" with other councils in Lincolnshire and those on the other side of the Humber.

But the leader did hint at the benefit of having more unitary councils, saying: "It is a well-established fact that the unitary authority model is the most efficient way of delivering local government services."

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In the proposal mooted by Mr Vickers, both East Lindsey and West Lindsey district councils would be subsumed and see their powers executed by others.

Councillor Craig Leyland, leader of East Lindsey District Council, said it was collaboration and not unification that he had been talking to other leaders about.

The Tory district council leader said: "All local authorities in Lincolnshire are, and have been for some time, looking at ways to work closer and more collaboratively, in order to achieve greater efficiencies.

Leader of East Lindsey District Council, Councillor Craig Leyland

"A unitary authority is not on the agenda for us at this time. Obviously if it does become an issue that Government want to pursue in the future, then we would review our position."

West Lindsey District Council said it had not been privy to any discussions about creating a "super council".

A "super council" might not have many advocates currently but the sense is that a change will be needed if the lost offer of devolution is ever to be reinstated.

It might not mean something as drastic as merging the power bases of Grimsby and Scunthorpe but, at some point, northern Lincolnshire leaders will have to put their heads together and agree a plan of action – or risk being left behind by the rest of the country.



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