Following a two-hour meeting last night (Monday) held at Warwick University’s Slate building, 23 councillors voted in favour of the proposal, 12 against with five opting to abstain. Stratford councillors also voted in favour and both councils will now make a request to the Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities.
Leader Cllr Andrew Day (Con, Bishop’s Tachbrook) urged members of the council to vote in favour.
He said: “If we are going to face the real challenges then we can’t sit on our hands - the bigger risk here is to do nothing. To be successful now in a fast-changing environment with a county council that has put very clearly on the table the absolute abolition of district and borough councils, we need to lead. We need to say what we want for our communities. We can’t wait for all the detail.
“We have enormous qualities and assets in common with Stratford. South Warwickshire is a gem and we should work together to polish it to make it an absolute beacon of democracy, of highly intelligent, bright businesses and enterprise.
“As long as I am leader, I am determined that we will work on this project together and it is with no hesitation that I emphatically implore colleagues here to support the motion before us to become South Warwickshire District Council.”
Even though councillors were allowed a free vote, the majority of Conservative and Liberal Democrats members voted in favour while the Greens voted against it and four out of five Labour councillors abstained.
Cllr Jacqui Grey (Con, Warwick Myton and Heathcote) was one of four Tories to vote against the proposal though and was among those calling for a delay in any political merger.
She said: “We’ve been told that if we don’t merge politically now, none of the operational savings will be delivered - in fact we face Armageddon in January. This is simply untrue and we shouldn’t feel forced into believing this is the case.
“It has always been possible to deliver the majority of the benefits without the political merger, effectively working in what would be a joint venture arrangement with Stratford District Council - a globally accepted and successful way of working.”
Cllr Ian Davison (Green, Leamington Brunswick) likened the potential merger to a shotgun wedding where divorce would be impossible and Cllr Colin Quinney (Lab, Leamington Clarendon) admitted he was concerned that residents across the district remained uninformed about what the proposal would mean.
But Cllr Sidney Syson (Lib Dem, Leamington Milverton) questioned whether services could be shared without a full merger, adding: “No man, or woman, can serve two masters which is why, in my opinion, a political merger is the logical next step and now is the time to seize that initiative.”
After the meeting, council leader Cllr Day said: “I am immensely proud that our councillors have come to this brave and historic decision to go ahead and to build a new council and shape our own destiny for the future of local Government in south Warwickshire.
“The widely recognised need for change has not only been identified, but is now being acted upon and now working with Stratford-on-Avon District Council we can start to build a vibrant, new, agile and strong council to serve all our residents.”
“I want to thank councillors, stakeholders and residents for the many hours they have dedicated and insightful comments they have contributed.”
At Stratford-on-Avon District Council, councillors approved the same recommendations with 26 voting for the recommendations, three against and two abstentions.
Cllr Tony Jefferson, leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, said: “This is a major historic decision on the future of local government in South Warwickshire. By taking this major strategic decision we are demonstrating our desire to control our own destiny. We believe this is the best decision for the benefit of our residents.
“The COVID pandemic has had an enormous impact on our communities and the council. This proposal to create a South Warwickshire District Council together with Warwick gives us the opportunity to safeguard our services into the future as well as helping us respond to any new challenges coming down the line.
"There is already considerable synergy between the two councils and, over time, the savings in costs will be substantial with significant benefits to residents from the integration.
“I’m sure our decision will have national significance and will provide a benchmark for other authorities looking to merge.
“The first crucial decision has been made, but the journey continues and there will be a lot of hard work ahead as it will be another two years before the new council comes into existence if agreed and approved.”
Green Party Councillors all voted against the proposal to fully merge Warwick and Stratford District Councils.
Leader of the Green Group, Councillor Ian Davison said: "By pushing on with these merger plans, the Conservative-led administration seems to want years of reorganisation and rebranding rather than focusing on the real services people care about, recovering from Covid and dealing with the climate crisis.
"There are savings to be had from working with Stratford on practical things like bin collection, but these are happening anyway. Other potential savings like selling Riverside House and improving IT systems don't need this merger.
"Despite repeated questions from the Green Party Group, the Conservatives have not been able to itemise their claimed savings from a full political merger. Years of cuts from Conservative central government means the council must find huge savings, but this political merger won't help.
"Instead, there's the danger that council staff who are worried about their jobs will now not focus so well on delivering services or saving money. It feels like we've entered a shotgun marriage where divorce is impossible when things don't work out."
Cllr Alan Boad, Leader of the Lib Dem group on Warwick District Council, said: "We have no doubt that the merger offers the best way forward.
"The financial position of Warwick District Council has been quite precarious, weakened by both the withdrawal of funding by central government and by the pandemic. Both councils have worked very closely over the last year to save money by jointly delivering the services that we deliver.
"We believe that this merger proposal will not only deliver those savings, but also bring additional savings. This means that the new South Warwickshire District Council will be better placed to maintain and improve the level of service that is delivered to local residents."
Cllr Susan Juned, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Stratford District Council, said: ‘Local government is under enormous financial pressure from Government and has been for some time.
"Nationally there has been talk about merging council areas into much bigger economic units, which would threaten to remove much of the local control that our councils currently exercise.
"Stratford and Warwick district councils have many similarities and cover most of the south of the county. By joining the two councils there is an opportunity to deliver better services, create a more resilient and effective council and save money for council taxpayers.
"We face similar challenges for the future. Most of our council services are already working together, with joint officer positions, so this is a natural next move. Our council tax levels are similar and we both face the challenges presented by being expensive housing areas.
"In particular, the Liberal Democrats want this to be an opportunity to find new ways to build more affordable housing for local young people, to work together more effectively on climate change and deliver better, quality services.
"The Conservative and Labour Group Leaders at the County Council have expressed interest in a unitary authority for the whole of Warwickshire, but there are huge differences between the south and north of the county.
"We hope that the merging of our two councils will be a first step in moving to a South Warwickshire Unitary Council. This would take over the functions of both the county and district councils in our area, remove one of the three levels of local government, and make it easier for residents to know who to contact when help is required.”
Matt Western, MP for Warwick and Leamington, has vowed to keep up the fight against the merger of Warwick and Stratford district councils, insisting there is no clear public mandate for the reforms.
More than 1,400 people have signed his petition calling for a referendum to have the final say on the merger.
After the meeting, he said: “I still believe a majority of people in Warwick district are against the merger, according to the consultation and my petition.
“The questionnaire shows a further three quarters in the district feel it will limit their access to councillors and local decision-making.
“It would be deeply undemocratic to impose a model of governance on the residents of Warwick district that has received no clear public mandate – and is premised on cost-savings that have been inflicted by the government cuts.
“More people than there were respondents from Warwick district in the whole consultation have now signed my petition for a referendum – and I firmly believe it remains the best course of action.
“Residents deserve the final say and questions still need to be answered – but WDC’s leaders are willing to side with Stratford residents to force this through.”