MICHAEL GOVE has hinted he favours a unitary authority in Warwickshire and refused to comment on plans for a district council merger, says MP Matt Western.
Mr Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was challenged by the Warwick and Leamington MP in Parliament.
Mr Western enquired whether residents should have the final say when it came to local government restructuring across the UK – a question he claims Mr Gove ignored.
The Labour MP raised Warwickshire County Council’s (WCC) ambitions for a unitary authority in the region and Warwick and Stratford district councils’ proposals to merge services.
He has lodged a petition to Parliament and gained 1,450 signatures calling for a referendum to decide the future of regional government in the county.
The call for a referendum has already been dismissed as pointless by Warwick District Council leader Andrew Day.
Both the Conservative run Warwick and Stratford councils have agreed to pursue a political merger and have already sent their proposal to Mr Gove who will have the final say on whether it can go ahead.
But Mr Western says Mr Gove appeared to back Conservative WCC leader Izzi Seccombe’s plan for a unitary authority while pouring cold water over the district councils’ merging to form a South Warwickshire council.
He also said Mr Gove appeared to suggest Warwickshire could become a part of the West Midlands Combined Authority.
WCC’s proposals were submitted to Mr Gove’s department in autumn 2020 but any decision was put on hold by ministers due to the pandemic.
Mr Western says confusion reigns over the future of local government and that residents were being overlooked as Conservative Party ‘power games’ were played out.
In the House of Commons, Mr Gove said: “Well I welcome the moves across Warwickshire to consider how services can be delivered even more efficiently as part of the economic success story that is the greater West Midlands.”
He added he thought the Conservative group at WCC was in a strong position to help bring people together.
But Mr Western said Mr Gove’s response was eerily in line with a draft white paper on local government reorganisation which was leaked before Christmas.
It detailed plans that would see England’s 181 district councils and 24 county councils either merged or scrapped – while elected ‘metro mayors’ would eventually oversee larger territories like in the West Midlands and Manchester.
He also beleived Mr Gove’s comments appeared to be out of step with Minister of State for Equalities and Levelling Up Communities Kemi Badenoch.
In accepting Mr Western’s petition, she said the government wold not ‘impose any top-down’ solutions and instead support a ‘locally-led approach’ – in which proposals needed ‘strong local support.’
Mr Western argues the district councils’ consultation had not sufficiently proven there was ‘strong support’ for the plans.
“I don’t know about residents, but I’m more confused than ever after hearing Mr Gove’s response to my question.
“He appeared to support Coun Seccombe’s proposals for a unitary authority.
“Yet Ms Badenoch suggested to me nothing would be imposed without strong support.
“Well, I have now had more petition signatures calling for a referendum than there were respondents from Warwick district in the councils’ consultation.
“And there has also been no consultation at all yet on WCC’s unitary authority proposals.
“A Citizens’ Assembly and a subsequent referendum would fully inform people about the options and allow them to take control of the process.
“At the moment, it’s been left to Conservative councillors, government ministers and expensive consultants – which is hardly reassuring.”