The Leader and Deputy Leader of Carlisle City Council Labour Group have written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, asking for the Local Government Reorganisation process to be paused, to enable Councils to focus on response to the Coronavirus pandemic and recovery work afterwards.
Cllr Colin Glover said: “Our dedicated Council staff have been on the front line throughout the pandemic, working hard to keep our communities safe and keeping services running. As we have seen from previous attempts, reorganising local government is a complex and time-consuming task and there could not be a worse time to do it than during a pandemic. In the longer term, reorganisation will need to be addressed, but now is not the time to do it, our communities and businesses deserve our total focus to be on supporting them in these difficult times.”
There is no doubt that Councils are being forced into making very difficult decisions as a result of savage government funding cuts. Whilst some additional funding for specific purposes over recent months has been welcome, it does not address the significant underfunding that has taken place over the past ten years and there are no signs that the government intend to reverse those decisions.
In October, Mr Jenrick wrote to Councillors in other parts of England saying changes would not be top down and must be locally led and demonstrate broad local support. In his letter Mr Jenrick said: “Given the pressures councils face this winter with the pandemic, I believe it would not be right at this time for them to further progress or focus on ideas for reform.”
Cllr Colin Glover added: “It is beyond comprehension that the Secretary of State thinks that Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset do not face exactly the same pressures in responding to the pandemic, as other parts of England. Even when the pandemic is over, residents and businesses will want the Council’s total focus to be on supporting them through recovery, not spending two or three years on internal restructuring.”
Cllr Les Tickner added: “The reorganisation of local government in Cumbria will have an impact on everyone in the county for decades to come. It is an extremely complex issue that requires meaningful consultation with the public, with our neighbouring districts, with our partners and with local businesses. It will only work if there is consensus amongst all partners. The timescale proposed by central government to produce detailed proposals is unrealistic and unnecessary.
“This timescale would be difficult enough in normal times. The ongoing impact of Covid-19 requires the full undivided attention of members and officers for the foreseeable future. Supporting communities and businesses through the inevitable detrimental impact on employment, mental health and housing in Cumbria that Covid-19 is creating must be our focus. We are happy to re-engage with the process when the full impact of Covid-19 is better understood. This must be done properly not hastily.”
In addition to the views expressed by Carlisle City Council Labour Group in the letter written to the Secretary of State, Barrow Borough Council, South Lakeland District Council and Eden District Council, jointly wrote to the Secretary of State asking for the process to be put on hold, pointing out that none of them had signed the letter asking for an opportunity to bid and stating that their firm belief is that Councils should be fully focussed on the Covid crisis.
Additionally, a motion considered by Allerdale Borough Council on Monday 23rd November was overwhelmingly agreed, asking government to defer consideration of any responses to the request for local government reorganisation proposals.
It is clear that there is no broad support for reorganisation whilst Councils are working hard to respond to the pandemic. For the government to press ahead regardless at this time, would go against the assurances that the Secretary of State gave and would without doubt be a ‘top down’ process, imposed by government.
In Parliament this afternoon, South Lakes MP Tim Farron told ministers that plans to reorganise Cumbria’s councils in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic are “crackers” and “out of touch”.
Tim also warned that large scale reorganisation would be a major distraction for those in charge of looking after education, social care and economic recovery in Cumbria.
Speaking during a debate in Westminster Hall, Tim said: “Even if you thought there was some wisdom in changing the balance of local government in Cumbria, how crackers, how out of touch would you have to be to think that now is the moment to do it.
“So I would say to the minister do not distract our social care home managers, our carers, our teachers, those people caring for the homeless, those people leading the economic recovery, do not divert them from their vital task by a pointless act of navel contemplation – a top down reorganisation.”
Responding, the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government Luke Hall said: “He has passionate views about local government reform and the timings of it.
“Of course, he will absolutely be able to make that argument through the process in the right way, and I know he feels extremely strongly about that matter.”