A referendum on support for moving Lincolnshire to unitary council status would cost in the region of £1 million, Lincolnshire districts have been told, despite public assurances from the Leader of Lincolnshire County Council, Cllr. Martin Hill, 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’s taxpayers of around £1 million.
Commenting, Cllr. Giles McNeill, Chairman of West Lindsey District Council’s Governance and Audit Committee, said:
“The county council has stated, several times now, that it wants to run a referendum at the same time as the local elections on Thursday, 4th May; to test the level of public support for moving to a unitary authority. Because this would be the same date as their elections, there are significant legal obstacles about holding a referendum on this day.
“The legal advice means the only way a referendum could take place would be to hold it completely separately or on another date. This would mean that the full cost to the Lincolnshire taxpayer would be in the region of £1million.
“I doubt that anyone would think this as a good use of taxpayers’ money, especially as the outcome of this sort of referendum would not be binding.
“If the county council had consulted more widely on its proposal, with any of the district councils, prior to making an announcement, our concerns could have been considered. They chose not to.
“Hopefully, this will now lead them to 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 certainly think such an approach reprehensible.
“I know that the district council Leaders 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 ridiculous, especially at such a cost.”
Speaking about the proposal for one unitary council for Lincolnshire, Cllr McNeill added:
“A single unitary council for the whole of Lincolnshire would be remote – 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 as the only layer of local 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 would not happen under a county unitary.
“The proposal by the county council is in response to its own financial circumstances, is not driven by a desire to act in the best interests of local residents.”
In addition, Cllr. McNeill 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 unitary proposal secures no extra funding.”