Town challenges the county

20th October 1995 at 01:00
One of the first things visitors see as they enter Northamptonshire County Hall are leaflets proclaiming: "Last chance to have your say".

The leaflets, which have been sent to every household, urge residents to say what local government structure they want in the county town. They explain that the Local Government Commission has recommended that Northampton should get unitary status but stress that an earlier plan to change the county's administrative structure was dropped because of the strength of opposition.

They also point out that the Audit Commission estimates it will cost between Pounds 2.8 and Pounds 3.6 million to give Northampton unitary status.

The county has mounted a vigorous campaign against the proposal even though the commission has said that the town has a strong identity, a pre-1974 tradition of self-government and an economic influence beyond its territorial boundaries.

The campaign has been joined by headteachers, school and adult education governing bodies, parent-teacher associations, youth organisations and the Training and Enterprise Council.

Roy Atkinson, the county's director of education, said: "All our key education partners are for the status quo."

Paul Reichelt, assistant chief executive of Northampton Borough Council, says it is unsurprising that the education community supports the county council - it is the unit of local government it knows best. He argues that with a population of 190,000, Northampton is big enough to be a successful education authority, but he concedes that the borough has not done enough to win over public opinion.

Last week there were no leaflets or calls for support in the borough council offices. In part, says Mr Reichelt, this failing stems from the restraint the council has shown following the Audit Commission's scrutiny of expenditure on re-organisation-related campaigning. Also the borough neither has access to the county's schools data nor the in-house expertise to produce detailed plans for the education service. In any case, it is not allowed to make policy commitments for the proposed authority.

The borough is buying in education advice from a consultant, Joyce Fogg, drawing on work being done by the Association of District Councils, and talking to metropolitan authorities to research best practice.

Mr Reichelt said: "We could have had an informed debate about education if the county council had not put everything into the context of 'this will cost such and such and puts 200 teachers' jobs at risk'. This is scaremongering."

So what advantages can a unitary authority bring for education in Northampton? The borough council's 64-page submission to the Local Government Commission devotes just two pages to education although it dwarfs any of the services the council currently administers. A unitary authority would take over about 30 per cent (Pounds 67.2 m) of the county's Pounds 224m education budget. The borough's budget for this year is Pounds 19.5m.

"It will take some time for new priorities to be fed into the system," Mr Reichelt said. "I don't think the public will notice any difference. I am convinced there will be a seamless transition."

But if this is to happen there will have to be an improvement in the flow of information from county to borough. "If the county council really cares for the people it will talk to us," Mr Reichelt said. "We would love to be talking to it now."

In the longer term he argues that unitary authority councillors will be more in tune with local needs and will be able to forge close links with the schools in their wards. "At present there is a feeling that education has been neglected in Northampton. You have county councillors making decisions about education when they don't even know the schools in their areas." The new council will also form stronger ties between education and leisure and will ensure that "silent groups", such as ethnic minorities are heard, he said.

John Shoreland, headteacher of Thomas Becket RC Upper School and Northamptonshire representative of the Secondary Heads Association, is, however, sceptical about both this claim and the argument that a unitary authority will provide more cost-effective support for schools. "We have 98 per cent of the schools budget delegated already so I can't see how the borough can do anymore," he said.

SHA and the other teachers' associations opposed the first re-organisation plan and will resist the new plan, too. "People are angry with the Government which has made a mess, and there is a feeling that the Labour-controlled county council has held the line well," he said.

The county is proud of the service units set up since April 1993 such as the inspection and advisory service (which has won contracts outside the county), the education management information service and the county music service. It questions whether such services, which benefit from economies of scale, would be successful without Northampton's involvement.

Equally, although special needs services are organised by area teams and so would be relatively easy to split up, there are specialists, such as experts in autism, who operate across areas. Without Northampton, they might not be affordable, the county argues.

Mr Reichelt is, however, irritated by suggestions that the unitary authority would dismantle or break away from services which work well.

"We will have purchaser provider agreements," he said. "Northampton could take over the running of the music service or it could continue to be run by the county with the borough buying in."

Mr Atkinson, however, argues that such joint arrangements increase bureaucracy and reduce the level of goodwill. "The borough talks about having a pragmatic approach to joint arrangements," he said. "But there always comes a time in special needs provision, for example, when people want to look after their own. There is also a loss of direct accountability."

Evidently the county and borough agree on little these days except that the reorganisation debate has driven a wedge between them and soured previously amicable working relationships.

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