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District gets cold feet over mega-merger

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Ashford BC has pulled out of plans to merge with four other districts in Kent over concnerns about value for money and maintaining the lowest council tax levels in the county.

A business case for a merger between Ashford, Canterbury City Council, and Dover, Shepway, and Thanet DCs was published on Wednesday.

But Ashford’s leader Gerry Clarkson (Con) said: “In light of the government’s devolution agenda, financial challenges facing local government and the opportunity to drive improvements it was only right and proper that we thoroughly examined the idea, and we entered the process with an open mind and a clear intention to work with the other authorities to explore the options.

“However having received the business case we do not believe it is in the best interest for our borough or represents value for money for our residents. We also feel it is not in the best interests of the other four authorities for us to continue either.”

Cllr Clarkson said maintaining the lowest council tax bills in Kent was “always our red line and something we were not prepared to cross” – the proposal is to “harmonise” council tax across the merged districts and Ashford’s residents would have had to pay 29% more.

Cllr Clarkson added: “The council’s current financial position is strong; we have a clear medium term financial plan in place and a vision to continue our evolution into becoming more commercially minded and self-sufficient from central government funding.

“It does not mean we have ruled out exploring further opportunities to work more closely or share services with other authorities in the future. We have an open mind to this, but now is not the right time for Ashford.”

A second business case setting out proposals for a merger between the remaining four districts, also published today, said: “Moving four districts into one would be the most ambitious [merger] yet tackled by district councils.”

A single council, which would not come into being until May 2019 if approved by the authorities involved and subsequently the communities secretary, would serve a population of about 518,000 people.

A single staffing structure is being proposed, while the number of councillors across the four districts could be cut from 170 to 72.

It is thought savings worth about £6.8m could be achieved within the first two years of the new council’s existence.

The business case said “whilst the new council would not be a unitary authority” the merger “opens up the possibility of devolution” both from Kent CC and to town and parish councils. The document said Kent CC was engaging with the districts on exploring devolved powers over “aspects of operational highways maintenance” such as street furniture and verge cutting, as well as public health and community safety services.

Meanwhile, powers over public conveniences, open spaces and local assets such as community centres could be devolved from the mega district to town and parish councils, the document said.

Meetings will now be held to formally consider the four way business case before a decision is taken by each council on 22 March as to whether to move to the next stage of public engagement.

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