THE MERGER of Warwick and Stratford’s district councils has been abandoned.
The leaders of the two councils said there were ‘irreconcilable’ differences between their respective ‘approaches and ambitions’, meaning the proposed merger could not go ahead ‘in the interests of residents and staff’.
It emerged SDC leader Coun Tony Jefferson had written to the Government requesting the decision on the proposed merger – expected at the end of May – be delayed amid fears that due diligence work on a company wholly owned by Warwick District Council (WDC) would not be completed in time.
But WDC leader Coun Andrew Day said asking the Government to delay matters would create further uncertainty for staff, especially those facing redundancy, and residents seeking assurances about local services.
He said requesting a further delay would result in trust being undermined, making it ‘untenable’ for the two authorities to merge.
In a joint statement, the council 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.
“Each council will continue to keep residents, councillors, and staff engaged in the process of updating our working arrangements.
“Thank you for the many contributions and the positive commitment made to supporting the future of both councils.”
The councils both voted in favour of the long-standing plan to join forces and form a new single South Warwickshire Council as recently as last December.
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.
WDC Coun Will Roberts of the Green Party – the only WDC party which voted against the proposal – said the merger’s cancellation was good news for residents.
He said: “We voted against this merger because we weren’t convinced that the claims made for change 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.
“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.”
Warwick and Leamington MP Matt Western 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.”
WDC Liberal Democrat group leader Coun Alan Boad said he was disappointed the merger would not go ahead – blaming SDC Conservatives for ‘lacking confidence’ in their WDC counterparts.
He said: “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 would 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 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. 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.”
A joint request, subject to the councils’ approval, will now be made to the Government to stop the merger process. Recommendations will be made to an extraordinary meeting of SDC and the AGM at WDC on May 11.