The mixed fortunes of Northamptonshire’s new town councils
From historic council chambers and highly paid town clerks, to minimal precepts and services - a look at the county's new town councils
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By Sarah Ward
When Northamptonshire’s county council and district and borough councils are closed down in April and replaced by two new unitary authorities, four new town councils will also be born.
For the first time, residents of Northampton, Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby will be represented by town councillors whom they can vote onto the new town councils when the elections take place this coming May. The move - which will also see two new parish councils created in Kingsthorpe and Far Cotton - will be the biggest ever expansion of the county’s parish council network, as the new councils will represent about half of the county’s population. It will also mean that every resident in the county will be represented by a town or parish council, of which there will be 270 in Northamptonshire.
Their creation is being progressed by the officers and councillors from the outgoing borough councils with meetings currently being held to make sure the new town councils are legal entities by April 1. However there is a wide range of approaches and levels of ambitions on display.
The new councils
Northampton - which will be the country’s biggest town council with a population of 130,000 - has the grandest ambitions. It plans to hold its council meetings and site its offices in the historic Guildhall (at a cost of £180,000 rent a year) employ a clerk with a salary of up to £72,000 and hopes to take over a wide range of services from the new unitary such as the market, community centres and parks. It will also take over the mayoralty and civic duties.
To do this it is proposing to tax (band d) residents a precept (annual charge) of £48.70 a year, which will bring in revenue of £1.7m a year. The council is already running in shadow form and has had a number of meetings. There will be 25 elected councillors.
Wellingborough - the shadow council is up and running and is being chaired by serving borough councillor Lorna Lawman. The authority is planning to set a precept of £11 for its first per year which will cover the salary costs of a clerk (who will be paid up to £62,000**) plus another staff member as well as election and administration costs. As yet no decision has been made on which services the authority will take over from the new unitary however running Swanspool and Croyland Gardens and the events and civic functions are considerations. There will be 23 town councillors.
Kettering - the council will be run from the current borough council offices at Bowling Green Road and so far has decided to take on the running of the town’s allotments and the market. It will have an initial year’s budget of around £134,000 and will charge residents an £8 precept for the first year. Existing borough twinning arrangements with German and Jamaican towns will remain. The town’s former coats of arms used pre the 1974 local government reorganisation will be resurrected. There will be 20 councillors elected in May across nine wards.
Corby - the set up is the least far forward of the four. As yet the borough authority has not decided on either a precept level or a budget and local politicians have also not held talks about what services it may run. Costings for a clerk - a position which is a legal requirement - have not been made public although the borough’s leadership has said it wants the initial precept to be ‘minimal’ due to the impact of an overall council tax increase for the unitary from April coupled with a reduction in the amount of help low earning families will receive in council tax support.
The borough’s leadership has insisted a ‘sensible approach’ is taken and it is for the new town council to decide what services it would like to run rather than the outgoing borough. The new council will elect 17 town councillors at the May local elections.
Difficulties and opportunities
When the county’s seven borough and district councils shut down in April, all their assets such as buildings and parks and service provisions plus those of the county council will be legally transferred over to the North or West unitary council depending on where they are based geographically.
The town councils will then have to negotiate which services and assets they wish to take on and just how much they become responsible for will come down to the ambitions of the new council and how much of a precept they wish to levy on their electorate.
Chief executive of the Northamptonshire County Association of Local Councils (NCALC) Danny Moody, says the twin forces of the pandemic and local government reorganisation (the financial collapse of the county council in 2018 led the government to order the current two tier system must end) has made an already tricky set up even harder.
“It is a difficult situation” he said. “When these new councils are set up they will have nothing. They will have no assets and no services.”
He said in an ideal world there would have been longer discussions about what services would be devolved down to the town councils but the speed of the local government changes has not allowed that to happen.
There is also the issue about how much the current unelected borough councillors should have a say in what the new town councils should deliver. It will not be until May that the new town councillors are elected into place and an official ruling party and leader is declared.
At Tuesday’s shadow Northampton Town Council meeting, Cllr Stephen Hibbert voiced what many others are worried about: “I’m very concerned that an unelected shadow councillor might pre determine what an elected council might want to do. I think we should be leaving it to the elected council to be making these kinds of decisions”.
And at the same meeting Cllr Brian Markham also brought up another point doing the rounds in local political circles. The new town councils could be taking over some of the services already provided but levying an extra precept on residents to do so.
“All you’re doing is giving the people what they had before and charging them for it,’ he said.
Danny Moody has a different take on the ‘double taxation’ accusation.
“I don’t think what is happening is double taxation” he said. He gave the example that if a town council decides to take over a play area and levies the precept to do that, then the unitary council (which had previously been responsible for the facility) would then have those funds available to spend on other services - therefore increasing the service provision.
“There is no getting away from the fact that people will be paying more, but that’s where we are as a country at the moment” he said. “My view would be, I can moan about paying more and watch local services disappear, or I can pay a bit more council tax and receive these valuable community services.”
Aside from the set-up and financial problems the positive aspects of the new town councils are they will allow a closer relationship between the residents and the local authority. For instance, if Kettering had not decided to create a town, the nearest local authority to residents would be the North Northants unitary - which has a population of more than 340,000 to serve.
The ability to respond to local needs is exciting many who are considering standing for election in four months time.
Speaking this week, leader of Northampton’s shadow town council, Cllr Jane Birch said of the ambitions for the new authority: “Every part of the town must see a difference. We are going to be looking at things slightly differently and doing things in a different way”.
*At a meeting yesterday evening the shadow town council adopted a lesser pay scale for the clerk of up to £49,000.