A referendum on support for a unitary mega-council in Lincolnshire would cost in excess of £1 million, the county’s district councils have been told, despite public assurances from the leader of Lincolnshire County Council that it would be ‘cost-free.’
Legal advice received by the district councils from Timothy Straker QC states that any attempt by the county council to combine their elections with such a referendum would be unlawful, with the plans being “contrary to the Election Rules and fraught with danger of litigation.” This means, in effect, the referendum would need to be held completely separately or on a different day, incurring costs to Lincolnshire taxpayers of around £1 million.
In response, Cllr Ric Metcalfe, Leader of City of Lincoln Council, said: “The county council has stated on several occasions that it intends to run a referendum on 4 May to gauge support for a unitary authority. This is the same date as their elections and there are significant legal obstacles about holding a referendum on this day.
"At this stage, this means the only way a referendum could take place would be to hold it completely separately or on another date, incurring a cost to the Lincolnshire taxpayer more than £1million. I do not believe that anyone would view this as a good use of taxpayers’ money, especially as the outcome would not be binding.
“If the county council had consulted on this proposal with any of the district councils prior to their announcement, we could have raised our concerns then. Sadly, they did not. Hopefully, they will now realise their mistake, reconsider their plans and not progress with either an unlawful referendum or one costing a vast amount of public money.
“Asking people to make a decision on such an important subject without having all the facts or knowing the alternatives is an irresponsible way of conducting any kind of debate and I cannot support such an approach.
“I and my district colleagues are in favour of a collective debate on the future of local government in Lincolnshire, but to hold a referendum at such an early stage in discussions is ludicrous, especially at such massive cost.”
Speaking about the proposal for one unitary council for Lincolnshire, Cllr Metcalfe added: “A remote unitary mega council for the whole of Lincolnshire would be ridiculous – we are one of the largest counties in the UK and contain a diverse range of areas with significantly differing challenges and needs.
“A county unitary would be too remote a tier of government - district councils are best placed to deliver services that meet the needs of all their residents and businesses and we want to protect these services. This will not happen under a county unitary.
“The proposal by the county council is in response to own financial challenges, and is not driven by a desire to act in the best interests of Lincolnshire residents.”
In addition, Cllr Metcalfe said of the recent failed devolution bid for Greater Lincolnshire: “District councils have been open to considering new methods of governance and are keen to discuss options with our neighbouring councils – the county council recently rejected a devolution deal that would have secured at least £450 million of new money for the region, to have been invested in housing and infrastructure. This current unitary proposal secures no extra funding.”
He added: “City of Lincoln Council has residents at its heart, is committed to providing quality services, achieving value for money and delivering the best for the city. The city council has a track record of success in delivering positive outcomes for the city and its communities.
“A county unitary would be far too remote a tier of governance and local services and accountability would suffer as a result. I believe the answer lies in greater collaboration with other councils, rather than one remote tier of government, and I look forward to working with my colleagues at Lincolnshire’s district councils to achieve this.”