Councils will be consulted, pledges county chief

WORRIED councillors say they still haven’t heard anything from County Hall chiefs about the transfer of key community services.

But Northumberland County Council leader Jeff Reid has allayed fears, telling the Gazette that all parish and town councils will be consulted and that everything is going to schedule.

Fury erupted at the beginning of the year after Northumberland County Council’s Lib Dem administration sent letters to grassroots councils telling them they should consider adopting services – such as bus shelters and public toilets – from the authority from April 2011, or risk losing them.

It sparked a massive backlash from parish and town councillors, accusing the administration of blackmail, amid fears that residents would face a hike in council tax bills as parishes would be forced to increase their precepts to save services under threat.

County council chiefs also came in for criticism after lists given to local councils detailing the services provided in their areas and the costs they would incur were plagued with inaccuracies.

And at a packed area committee north meeting in January, the administration was forced to make a U-turn, saying the status quo would in fact be maintained for the time being and local councils would not have to adopt these duties for the 2011/12 financial year.

Instead, councillors were promised that the county council would enter into proper discussion with all parish and town councils in Northumberland over the coming months to understand the local picture, costings and implications for each area to give a more realistic time-frame to work together.

But three months on from that meeting and with the clock ticking, some north Northumberland grassroots councils, including Rothbury, Belford, North Sunderland and East Chevington, say they are still waiting to hear from County Hall.

At last Wednesday’s meeting of Rothbury Parish Council, chairman Coun Peter Dawson, said: “We still haven’t heard anything about when the county council want to come and meet us to talk about the services. We don’t want it to be at a parish council meeting as it will take too long and it needs to be done in the very near future.”

He added: “We were assured that they would come out to meet every parish council at night so everyone could come.”

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Stewart, chairman of North Sunderland Parish Council, said: “The only discussion we ever had was that night at Alnwick (the area committee). It is a cause for concern. There is so much to discuss. They said they would come around and have these discussions yet we have never heard a soul and there are others who are in the same boat.”

Some councils have managed to arrange a meeting with county council representatives.

At Monday night’s meeting of Wooler Parish Council, members heard that county bosses are going to the village for a meeting today to discuss the delegation of services but members stressed that it was important to be provided with information about costs, implications and responsibilities.

And Coun Karl Wait asked why the county council representatives couldn’t come to a parish council meeting.

He said: “Why have they come during the day? I would like to be there but I can’t during the day.”

Amble Town Council has managed to secure a meeting with the county council in May, again during the day.

Member Coun Helen Lewis said that the county council should be as accommodating as possible to parish and town councils and said it was key for clear information about the transfer of services to be provided so that councillors could then make decisions.

Last Friday, Bill Batey, clerk of Alnwick Town Council, and town mayor Eileen Blakey, met deputy leader for the county council Roger Styring and two officers at the council chamber in Clayport Street for initial discussions.

Mr Batey said that the discussions were ‘useful’ and services discussed included bus shelters and parks, and that the information would be taken back to the town council for members to decide the way to proceed.

In defence of some of the criticism aimed at the administration, Coun Reid said that discussions had taken place with councils such as Alnwick, Ponteland and Blyth and that these were short, trial conversations and there were then plans to consult and meet every town and parish council.

“Our intention is to have wider dialogue,” he said. “We will do what we said we would and we will speak to all individuals in plenty of time for them to make decisions on their budgets. The plan is to get it done by autumn so it gives plenty of time for parish councils to know what is expected and prepare the precept. It is all going to schedule.

“The problem is there are 155 or so (parish/town councils in Northumberland). Being in contact with them when some of them don’t meet as regularly as others can prove a little difficult but it is happening.”

He added: “There isn’t any alternative but to get this done before councils start to make their precept decisions. We have got to do it. We can’t have half sorted out and not the other half as that would continue the uncertainty and unevenness in the delivery.”

He added: “We are having conversations that say ‘this is what we think the assets are in your parish. We think these assets belong to us and these other assets you should be taking on.’ We are discussing what things are strategic and what things are local.”

About meeting councils, he said: “This is not us dictating or making it difficult. If you can’t make it, when can you make it.”