Labour councillors will stop attending ‘secret’ meetings being held on the future of Nottinghamshire councils with immediate effect.
The Labour group feels the meetings, which are being held behind closed doors, are being used to ‘legitimize a flawed process designed to mislead the public’, and that the meetings were not ‘fair and open’.
But the Conservative leader of the council, Kay Cutts, said she was surprised by the decision, and that people in Nottinghamshire should not be ‘misled by claims that the current local government structure is sustainable’.
Nottinghamshire County County is currently working on a plan which would see all seven district and borough councils, and the county council itself abolished, and one or two new councils set up to cover the entire county.
Supporters say it would streamline council services by reducing duplication, and could save £20 to £30 million a year.
But critics fear it would erode local decision making and accountability, and could cost a large amount to set up.
While the plans are being drawn up, the council set up meetings to keep councillors informed of the progress.
A reporter from the Local Democracy Reporting Service asked to report on the meetings – known as cross party working groups – but the request was denied.
Now, County Councillor Alan Rhodes, the leader of the Labour group on the county council, has withdrawn his party from the working groups.
He said: “I assumed when I accepted the invitation to take part, that the process would be fair and open, that we would be treated with respect and that our involvement would be a positive experience.
“Regrettably, it has become clear to me that any notion of serious cross party working in this instance is false. Councillor Kay Cutts, the Conservative leader of the county council has shown that she has no interest in considering any alternative options to her own plans to abolish all district and borough councils in the county and creating one council for the whole of Nottinghamshire.
“Her recent interviews with the press have been riddled with inaccurate comments, shown disrespect for the work of our district and borough council partners and undermined the integrity of the cross party working group.
“I believe that she is clearly attempting to achieve her own objectives through a campaign of fear, by wrongly suggesting that her way is the only way for the county council to avoid bankruptcy.
“In doing this she is deliberately misleading the public by omitting to say that any savings from devolution are several years away.
“Furthermore, the first phase of the consultation process – which the cross party working group had no influence on – is in our view unfairly biased in favour of a unitary council; with questions that appear designed to lead people in that direction.
“It is my belief therefore that by remaining within the Cross Party Working Group, Labour members will be legitimizing a flawed process which is designed to mislead the public of Nottinghamshire.
“I have therefore taken the decision to withdraw my members from this process with immediate effect’.
The leader of the council, Councillor Kay Cutts, said: “I am disappointed by Councillor Rhodes’ decision to withdraw from the working group meetings. The most recent scheduled meeting had to be postponed because he was on holiday and did not wish to send a substitute.
“I agreed that we would look for another date to suit his diary, so his decision today took me by surprise.”
“Our unitary authority proposals are a constructive plan to tackle the council’s £54 million budget gap without cutting popular services over the coming years, such as libraries and the Local Improvement Scheme.
“I don’t mind people disagreeing with that plan and arguing in favour of the current structure, but in that case they need to be honest with people about what their alternative plan is and what services they would cut.
Labour has a history of opposing things without setting out an alternative. The onus is on them to show how they will save £54 million.
“It is nonsense for Councillor Rhodes to say I would not consider alternatives to one council for Nottinghamshire, because it’s already in the public domain that we are examining up to seven different options.
“This is not a campaign of fear but a campaign setting out the truth of the harsh reality of rising demand against falling income.
The people of Nottinghamshire should not be misled by claims that the current local government structure is sustainable. Keeping the status quo will guarantee the loss of many county council services to the detriment of our residents.
“I sincerely hope people will have their say by taking part in phase one of the FutureNotts consultation at www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk/futurenotts or by filling in a form at your local library.”
The next meeting of the cross party working group is scheduled to be held on Wednesday, November 14.
Kit Sandeman , Local Democracy Reporting Service