"They are just a bit of a basket case that you can’t work with": The fall-out after Warwick and Stratford councils officially scrap the merger

Both councils express their disappointment after the collapse of the deal

Aerial view of Riverside House, Warwick District Council's headquarters

Merger plans that would have linked Warwick and Stratford together to form a South Warwickshire District Council have officially been scrapped after councillors in both areas voted to bin the deal.

But the fallout has included a scathing attack from one Leamington councillor who warned about future deals with the neighbouring authority in case it left his council out of pocket.

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Warwick District Council leader Cllr Andrew Day (Con, Bishop’s Tachbrook) admitted he was disappointed with Stratford’s decision to pull out of the merger, something they did by writing to Michael Gove calling for a delay so that due diligence could be carried out on Warwick’s property arm Milverton Homes.

He told this week’s cabinet meeting: “We aren’t where we wanted to be but where we are is not in a bad place. In year, we are financially stronger than we would have been by not pursuing this.

“It is a huge disappointment. There has been a very significant investment of time and effort but at the end of the day we are still mates, still neighbours and we are still going to work together.

“At the end of the day we are here to represent the best interests of Warwick district and I do believe we have done so even though this has not ended in the way we hoped it would. We also have a responsibility to protect our officers and there was an unreasonable level of uncertainty required by the further due diligence which I do not believe was necessary.”

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Alan Boad (Leamington Lillington) was also disappointed with the outcome and pointed the finger at councillors over the border.

Speaking at cabinet, and again at the council’s annual meeting later, he said: “I think it is a shame, being someone who was in support, that we couldn’t pull it off but it was down to irreconcilable differences. Stratford’s attitude to risk is negative and I have to say their outlook is not much better either.

“The way they behaved wasn’t professional and not what you’d expect. You’d expect to have a discussion rather than playing Russian roulette with it loaded one way. Clearly the majority of them didn’t want it to go ahead.

"Three times, including this one, we have tried to work with Stratford and each time they have collapsed. I think they are just a bit of a basket case that you can’t work with. It is a shame because there was a lot in it for us as a council and also for the residents of Stratford and Warwick but it’s not to be.

“We will see the financial statements coming out next month but we will see that it has been beneficial to us and just think how much more beneficial it would have been if you had partners you could trust and who were actually on the same page.

“My advice is that if we do anything with them, be extremely cautious. We got out of this one without losing money but it might not be the same next time.”

WHAT DID THEY SAY IN STRATFORD?

At this week’s Stratford District Council’s cabinet and full council meetings, Cllr Jason Fojtik (Ind, Clopton) referred to the merger as a cynical ploy and called for the leader, Cllr Tony Jefferson, to resign.

He said: “It seems like the last two years have been something of a mirage. I didn’t support this merger from the beginning. My feeling is that it was a cynical ploy from the leadership of this council and Warwick District Council to resolve a Tory party split in Warwickshire with the county council leader Izzi Seccombe.

“I think this whole debacle stinks to be honest. In fact I think Cllr Jefferson should have come here to apologise and perhaps he should resign.”

Cllr Susan Juned (Lib Dem, Alcester Town), vice-chair of the overview and scrutiny committee, said members at their meeting voted for a task and finish group comprising councillors from both councils which would look at what went wrong and what lessons could be learnt.

The council’s chief executive David Buckland explained that while neighbouring councillors could be invited, they could not be forced to attend such meetings and this prompted a word of warning from Cllr Daren Pemberton (Con, Bidford East).

He said: “It is right and proper that we take a deep dive to learn the lessons from the process that we as an organisation has gone through over the last 18 months or so. The only questions for me are practical ones. We talk in terms of a task and finish group with Warwick members but in real terms it takes two to tango.

“If we cannot secure the involvement of the members of Warwick, how do we approach it then? Almost by definition, the rounded picture you are seeking as the overview and scrutiny committee is not really available to you - you are only going to have one half.”

In summing up ahead of councillors voting to officially scrap the merger, Cllr Jefferson said there were key differences between the two authorities.

He explained: “When you are going through a process it becomes very messy. It is not straightforward and the further you go through it the more you discover and the more things change.

“Personally I don’t think we fully understood how different the cultures were between Warwick and Stratford and you only begin to find that out by trying to work together. The political situation at Warwick did not help - there is not an overall majority which made life difficult and I think that is one of the things that perhaps we underestimated.”

SO WHAT NEXT?

Cllr Tony Jefferson said: “Despite the decision today it should not mean the end for the positives that this process has generated.

“We have learned a lot and wish to carry on as good partners and some of the joint working arrangements already put in place will continue as it makes sense to continue this work.”

Among the areas where the councils will collaborate are business rates administration, legal services, climate change and the development of the South Warwickshire Local Plan.

The new 123+ waste contract will also cover both council areas from this summer and Cllr Jefferson added: “In terms of waste and recycling, there is a contract that will come into effect in August and initially it is for an eight-year period.

“The picture I am painting is that an awful lot of the things that have been set in place up to termination of the merger will continue because it makes sense to do it.

“Early analysis shows that we have spent around £162,000 and estimate that £271,000 worth of savings has been achieved, which equates to a net benefit of £110k of this joint working. This does not include the one-off savings relating to the Local Plan, that will be achieved as well.”

In reflection, Cllr Andrew Day added: “I would like to put on record my thanks to all of the hardworking officers of this council, who have never lost sight of what we’re here to do.

"Supporting residents, businesses and our communities during the pandemic and then working so hard towards the merger proposals, during a long period of uncertainty for them.

"Myself and my fellow councillors have been ‘gob smacked’ by their dedication and exceptional commitment to a high quality service and recognise our responsibility to support their ongoing wellbeing.”