By Duncan Flynn
The potential merger of Stratford Upon Avon District Council and Warwick District Council into a South Warwickshire super district council which is likely to be supported by both authorities in the coming days should not be a surprise to close observers of local government in the county. The two councils have been sharing resources for some time and are progressing a joint Local Plan. However, this merger is potentially important news for both developers, residents and neighbouring authorities.
Following a report by Deloitte which identified significant savings if the merger goes ahead, the two Councils are looking to formalise the merger which will see a new joint Council come into effect in April 2024. Indeed, both Councils are set to vote on the merger later this month with Warwick District Council likely to approve the merger at their full Council meeting on 24 February and with Stratford Upon Avon District Council holding their equivalent meeting on 22 February. Both of Council’s Cabinets have given their support for the merger.
Warwick District Council Leader Cllr Andrew Day (Conservative) has been extremely positive about the proposed merger expressing his “absolute joy” at the plans and claiming that it will enable “an almost Houdini budget where somehow we are managing to maintain our services – and even improve them in places, while achieving a balanced budget.” Stratford upon Avon’s Leader Cllr Tony Jefferson (Conservative) has suggested that the merger has been largely driven by the financial impact of the pandemic and has claimed that the merger will lead to significant benefits for residents in both authorities. “Without this, there would be very challenging decisions required from both authorities.”
This support for the creation of a South Warwickshire District Council may not be so sympathetically viewed by those at Warwickshire County Council who hoped to see a pan-Warwickshire unitary authority created. In October 2020, the Government confirmed that it would be inviting local authorities in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset to submit proposals for the establishment of new unitary authorities for each county, which will see the abolition of the district councils within these counties. This follows on from new unitary authorities being established in Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Northamptonshire, Suffolk and Wiltshire over the past few years. There was some surprise that MHCLG Minister Luke Hall MP did not include Warwickshire in the list of councils where the Government were looking to see new unitary authorities created. This was especially the case as the Conservative-controlled Warwickshire County Council had voted in favour of the establishment of a new unitary authority in September 2020. In response to the news that Warwickshire had not been included within this new tranche of unitary authorities, Warwickshire County Council Leader, Cllr Izzi Seccombe, stated “in Warwickshire there is a consensus view that the current model of local government is no longer sustainable and that change is needed. We will continue to press for reform for Warwickshire.” It remains to be seen whether these particular reforms will be acceptable to Warwickshire County Council and to a Government which has been generally supportive of new pan-County unitary authorities. Moreover, one wonders if this merger may result in further mergers in the three remaining Warwickshire district councils – North Warwickshire, Nuneaton & Bedworth and Rugby.
Politically, the creation of a South Warwickshire District Council would be attractive to Conservatives within the existing Warwick District Council who are currently reliant on residents association support for a majority. Furthermore, the Conservatives have been hemorrhaging support in Royal Leamington Spa since the Brexit vote due to the increasingly young demographic in the town with the possibility of an anti-Conservative rainbow coalition emerging in the near future. By combining with the more Conservative Stratford upon Avon District Council to form a larger authority, the Warwick Conservatives are in a stronger position to continue to control local government in their area by diluting the anti-Conservative vote in Royal Leamington Spa.
As the joint Local Plan progresses it will be interesting to see if Warwick District Council’s traditional approach of supporting urban extensions to existing settlements rather than an entirely new garden village style settlement persists.
In William Shakespeare’s home terrain, the local Council Leaders will be hoping residents see the creation of a new South Warwickshire District Council as being as they like it, rather than a comedy of errors.