Two councils in Warwickshire have abruptly and dramatically abandoned plans to merge and create a new ‘super authority’ to provide key services to a quarter of a million residents in the south of the county.
Stratford and Warwick district councils have cited ‘irreconcilable differences’ for their shock decision which comes less than six months after they voted to ask the government to approve a merger. Central Bylines reported on this Blue on Blue tug of war last November.
In a joint statement, Andrew Day (Warwick) and Tony Jefferson (Stratford), the leaders of the two councils, cited irreconcilable differences between their respective approaches and ambitions. They now feel that it is in the interests of residents and staff that the proposed merger does not go ahead.
Concerns over due diligence
The breakup came after Jefferson asked the government to delay the decision on the merger – expected at the end of May – because of fears that due diligence work on a company wholly owned by Warwick District Council (WDC) called Milverton Homes would not be completed in time.
Day responded by saying that delaying matters would create further uncertainty for staff – especially those facing redundancy – and residents seeking assurances about local services. He added that requesting a further delay would result in trust being undermined, making it ‘untenable’ for the two authorities to merge.
The leaders said: “This is a disappointing outcome, but 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. It is anticipated that some of the joint working arrangements already put in place will continue, such as legal services and business rates collection. However, others including the Joint Management Team and the service integration programme will end.”
It is expected that plans to build new offices for the South Warwickshire district council will now be axed.
The proposed new authority would have combined the two councils’ services such as waste collection, planning, housing, management of parks and sports facilities, licensing, business support and environmental health.
Tony Jefferson has previously said: “we’ve got very closely intertwined economic geographies and South Warwickshire makes an awful lot of sense as a place that people identify with.”
Decision under political fire
Both councils are Conservative-run. Unsurprisingly, the embarrassing announcement that the merger is off has been slammed by opposition parties.
WDC Green Party councillor, Will Roberts, said: “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. Let’s hope the two administrations now get back to focusing on the day job rather than unnecessary grandiose plans.”
Warwick and Leamington Labour MP Matt Western said: “The proposed council merger was always a flawed concept and unpopular with the public.”
WDC Liberal Democrat group leader Alan Boad said: “Months of hard work from officers of both councils have been wasted, and much uncertainty has been caused for staff – all at considerable expense. 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.”
Confusion over the future
It was last December that Stratford and Warwick district councils formally agreed merger plans and submitted a proposal to government. They wanted the go ahead to form a new joint council by May 2024. But now, subject to approvals by both the councils, a joint request will be made to government to stop the merger process.
The breakup has thrown both councils into turmoil.
Some staff had already been told they would be promoted to run new larger departments after the merger. Their ambitions have now been dashed. Other staff had been expected to be offered generous redundancy to leave. Will they now keep their jobs?
But the biggest uncertainty is over money. The merger was mostly driven by the need to find big savings in future years. Warwick and Stratford claimed the merger would save £4.6 million a year by 2025-6. Where will the councils find this level of savings as they go it alone? It’s hard not to anticipate heavy cuts in services.
And what about the future shape of local government in Warwickshire?
The county council has already sounded out the government about its plans for a unitary authority responsible for running all services across the county. It has been told that ‘in due course’ ministers ‘would value the opportunity’ to examine the county’s proposals.
The alternative to creating an all-powerful single unitary is to split Warwickshire into two unitary authorities, one of which would cover south Warwickshire. With the collapse of the Stratford-Warwick merger, the betting is now on there being one overarching authority. Certainly the mood at the county council is currently a lot chirpier than at the Warwick and Stratford district councils.