Devolution plans to join debt ridden Warrington "would be utter madness"

Members of Cheshire East's Corporate Policy Committee are divided over the Council's devolution plans and whether they should be joining forces with both Cheshire West and Warrington.

Committee members were asked at their meeting on Thursday, 13th June, to approve the Council's plans to engage proactively with Government, in order to assess and understand what sub regional options on devolved powers are achievable.

Peter Skates, Acting Executive Director of Place, explained that devolutions could enable the transfer of up to £20M-£30M funding per annum for up to 30 years, and empower sub regional areas to take more control, including addiitonal control for the local transport network.

However, some conservative members expressed their concerns over including Warrington given their level of debt.

Councillor Chris O'Leary, Sutton Conservative, said "Warrington Borough Council has a debt of £1.85 billion, it is the most in-debited local authority in the country. Without an electoral mandate discussions in secret being held with the most in-debited borough in the council going ahead in a way that will effectively further destroy services in the north of the borough."

He continued "I will not be supporting these recommendations, I will not be supporting a devolution deal that includes Warrington I think it would be utter madness for this council to go into such a deal because it will just syphon off resources into Warrington."

Councillor Janet Clowes, Leader of Conservative Group, supported her colleague view saying "In light of what we've just heard absolutely we should be considering leaving Warrington out."

Councillor Nick Mannion, Labour Macclesfield West and Ivy, urged members to accept the recommendation saying "All it's asking us to do is sit down and hear what the government's got to offer after 5th July."

Council leader Sam Corcoran said "In terms of the fear our funding would be syphoned off. there is no risk there. The example of Birmingham and West Midlands has been quoted. The idea is the devolved authority would sit above the three authorities, it would not be not be taking funding from any of the individual councils to pass on to another council. So I think those concerns can be squashed."

He continued "We are being asked to enter into discussions with government. I do think it is crucial we go ahead with this now at this time so that when the new government is formed we can be first in the queue to discuss devolution and press ahead with the plans.

"The recommendations do also make clear if we do have progress in those discussions it will come back to the Corporate Policy Committee for further discUssion and scRutiny so I do support the recommendations."

Councillor Mark Goldsmith, Independent Wilmslow West and Chorley, said "I do actually share quite a lot of the concerns the conservative councillors have raised so the question is why am I supporting this motion. Well the issue is we won't know if those concerns are valid or not unless we talk to the government. We're in a position of ignorance at the moment, we don't know what's on offer or what the strings are. Yes we may request a deal just with Cheshire West but the government might not allow us ot do that. We don't know, we have to ask the questions."

Members voted 7 in favour of the Council meeting with Government to discuss and explore the potential devolution options whilst 4 voted against and 1 abstained.

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Comments

Here's what readers have had to say so far. Why not add your thoughts below.

Andy Brown
Wednesday 19th June 2024 at 7:17 am
Sounds like a really good way of making our council tax sky rocket.
Alan Brough
Thursday 20th June 2024 at 1:03 pm
@ Andy Brown,

CEC have many and various ways of making Council Tax sky rocket. I read last week that they have appointed an interim S151 Officer (Finance) who will cost £1298 per day. I assume that uppermost in her list of responsibilities will be to find out why CEC are losing so much money.

In saying that, she's only expected to be in post for six months whilst they appoint a full time S151 Officer on similar money to look into why CEC is hemorrhaging cash.
Andy Brown
Saturday 22nd June 2024 at 1:27 pm
It's good work if you can get it Alan!
Roy West
Monday 24th June 2024 at 12:08 pm
The salary figures quoted are absolutely insane, does nobody on the Council question these figures before they are agreed? No wonder we are suffering unrepaired potholes, blocked road drains and numerous other problems requiring financial cover.
Craig Browne
Tuesday 25th June 2024 at 3:18 pm
Hi Roy,

We do indeed query the figures; however, it is worth remembering that the £1,298 quoted above is not a salary but the daily sub-contract rate. I appreciate that the figure still appears high, nevertheless it is the going rate for the Head of Finance in public sector organisation with a gross annual budget (capital and revenue) of over £750m.

It is a legal requirement for local authorities to have a Head of Finance (s.151 officer in local government speak) and therefore not appointing an interim isn't an option. Most s.151 officers are on a minimum notice period of three months, so even after an appointment has been made it isn't unusual for local authorities to need to appoint an interim.

Returning to the topic of the article above, I am not personally a fan of the devolution agenda; however, both of the major parties in Westminster have made it clear that they are committed to it (it makes sense from their perspective, as it is more efficient for them to negotiate with a dozen or so elected regional Mayors as opposed to 317 Council Leaders).

I am enough of a pragmatist to therefore realise that if Cheshire East (potentially along with Cheshire West & Warrington) isn't even in the room having a conversation with the next government, it risks becoming an island that is bypassed by central government on their way to concluding funding agreements with everyone else.

It makes sense to at least establish what kind of devolution deal might be on offer - that much doesn't commit us to anything. Personally, I believe that any deal that is offered should then be put to the residents of Cheshire East (as well as potentially Cheshire West and Warrington) and should only be signed if there is majority support in each area.

Kind regards,
Craig

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