Councillors at Warwick District Council and their counterparts at Stratford District Council have scrapped plans to merge both of the authorities to create a new ‘mega’ South Warwickshire District Council.
The announcement was made at a meeting of Warwick District Council’s Cabinet at Leamington Town Hall last night.
At the public meeting, Clr Andrew Day (Con, Bishops Tachbrook), the leader of Warwick District Council (WDC) gave a joint statement from both councils.
He said: “Following a meeting between the council leaders and chief executives last Thursday (April 14),Cllr [Tony] Jefferson the leader of Stratfrd District Council (SDC) wrote seeking to delay the Government’s decision on the proposed merger with WDC to allow further due diligence to be completed.
"The letter was sent without my agreement although I was invited to be a co-signatory.
"It was understood by Cllr Jefferson that in writing to the Government unilaterally seeking to extend the current period of uncertainty would, in effect, end our current council merger process.
"On December 13 2021, as we know, both council’s formally agreed merger plans and submitted a proposal to the Government requesting permission to form a new joint council by May 2024.
"In advance of this key political step councillors received detailed advice including an independent financial impact assesement.
"This Local Government Association report recommended that a supplementary review was commissioned by SDC in relation to the company wholly owned by WDC – Milverton Homes.
"Given that a response from the Government is anticipated by the end of May in respect of the merger, Cllr Jefferson considered there to be a material risk that further due diligence work would not be completed in time and, if the minister was minded to support the merger, there would be limited opportunity for Stratford to withdraw at that point.
"I considered that the decision to merge had already been made last December and that ongoing due diligence did not prevent the integration of services progressing as planned.
"To ask the Government to delay matters would create further uncertainty for all our staff, especially those facing redundancy, and, of course, our residents seeking assurances about local services.
"In my opinion, any further delay would result in trust being undermined making it untenable for the two authorities to further integrate services and therefore to merge.
"We [WDC and SDC] are jointly agreed that the proposed merger cannot therefore go ahead as anticipated.
"There is a significant difference between the approaches and ambitions of the two councils that has proved to be irreconcilable.
"This means that a joint request, subject to council approval, will now be made to the Government to stop the merger process.
"Recommendations will be made at an extraordinary meeting with SDC and at our AGM on May 11.
"This is a disappointing outcome but it should not mean the end of the positives that this process has generated.
"We have learned a lot and wish to carry on as good partners.
“It is anticipated that some of the joint working arrangements already put in place will continue such as our legal services and business rates collection.
"However others, including the joint management team and service integration programme will end.
"Each council will keep residents, councillors and staff engaged in the process of updating on our working arrangements.
"I would also like to thank the many contributions and positive commitments that have been made across all parties in this council in supporting this programme for which I am sure we will continue to see future benefits.”
Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Andrew Milton (Lib Dem, Kenilworth St John’s), the chairman of WDC’s overview and scrutiny committee, described the announcement as “a bit of a bombshell” and “quite a lot to take in”.
He said: “A lot of our focus on this was on the mooted benefits of the merger – tackling the climate emergency and our ability to devolve some powers to town councils as well.
"We would question what the future is of that.
"Also, a lot of the time we spent was about service provision and what was coined as the ‘one servant, two masters’ challenge, which it seems we’lll now have in a number of instances.
"Also, part of the rationale for the merger was the financial savings we could make.
"It sounds like there’ll be a lot more scrutiny coming our way as to what happens next.”
In response, Cllr Day said: “Early indications are that we have had financial benefits from the shared working and merger process in excess of £1 million over the past year.
"We will provided specific detail to the scrutiny committee as we unpick that.”
In response to the news about the merger being scrapped he said: ““The proposed council merger was always a flawed concept and unpopular with the public.
“Nearly 1,750 people have signed my petition against it and the councils’ costly public consultation was far from conclusive.
“It would have damaged democracy and accountability in our area and meant a reduction in the number of councillors.
“The decision not to merge is a very good thing for our district and Warwick and Leamington.
“I am awaiting further details to see what will be retained and scrapped from the proposals.”
Liberal Democrat and Green Party councillors have reacted to the news of the merger being scrapped.
Cllr Willl Roberts (Green, Leamington Willes), said: “This is good news for residents, even though it appears to have happened because of Conservative infighting.
"We voted against this merger because we weren’t convinced that the claims made for change added up and were worth years of cost, chaos and disruption.
"The merger would also have moved decision-making further away from those affected by the decisions.
" Local democracy has been eroded by successive governments and we need to protect residents’ rights to decide locally on the future of their communities.
“Now we have to ask what has happened? Why have suddenly the two Conservative administrations suddenly pulled back?
"It seems to me that the ongoing Conservative infighting over control of Warwickshire councils has taken another twist and turn, when the focus should always have been on recovering from the pandemic and improving residents’ lives.”
The Green party were the only party to unanimously vote against this merger when it was put before WDC.
The Liberal Democrats decided to support the Conservatives and Labour took no position by abstaining.
Cllr Alan Boad (Lib DEm, Leamington Lillington, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on WDC, said: “ Very disappointingly, Stratford district Conservatives have pulled the plug on a new joint council because, it would seem, they lacked confidence in the Warwick district Conservatives.
"The Liberal Democrats have been broadly supportive of the merger for a number of reasons.
"Residents were in favour of it, and we were convinced that it was a much better option than a county-wide unitary authority.
"A joint council with Stratford would, for example, have devolved a number of powers to town and parish councils – a change we were keen to promote.
"A county-wide unitary authority – now the likely outcome – is likely to result in a more remote council, and less local representation for residents.
“Months of hard work from officers of both councils have been wasted, and much uncertainty has been caused for staff – all at considerable expense.
"The irony is that one of the chief motivations for adopting a joint council was to make significant cost savings forced on us by the Government.
"With the merger now derailed, major questions need to be answered.
"Significant cost savings were hoped for – how will the budget be affected?
"Will there have to be further cuts to essential services?
"The new waste contract will operate for both councils – but how will it be managed?
"The Warwick District Tory budget, supported by the Labour group, was based on an assumption of two per cent inflation, which is already running at over seven per cent.
"The pointless freezing of council tax will add yet more pressure to cut the very services relied on by those who are the least well off.
“Instead of creating a vibrant new South Warwickshire Council with a bold vision for the future, both councils will now have to take stock, rework their budgets and set a new direction.
"We will continue to press for joint working wherever possible, maintenance of services and devolution of powers to town and parish councils.
"With the merger off, local residents will have to wait for the local elections in May 2023 before they can have their say on the mess the Conservatives have left – sadly, a whole year away.
“This merger has already caused unnecessary disruption, cost the taxpayer thousands and affected the ability of council officers to focus on their roles to help residents of Warwick district.
"Councils can work together to deliver better services for residents without merging – let’s hope the two administrations now get back to focusing on the day job rather than unnecessary grandiose plans.”