Lincolnshire drops plan for 'unlawful' referendum on council unitary

Lincolnshire County Council has dropped plans to hold a public referendum into forming a unitary authority system for the region after a lawyer said it would be “unlawful” to hold the vote on the same day as local elections.

The latest news comes after a legal challenge to the council found that a proposed “cost free” referendum to be held on the same day as local council elections on 4 May would be unlawful.

The council will now seek residents' views into the matter. 

The legal advice was submitted by Timothy Straker QC, who stated that a referendum would be “contrary to the Election Rules and fraught with danger of litigation”.

It was also announced that contrary to claims by Lincolnshire County Council’s leader, the referendum would actually cost taxpayers in the region of £1m, as the vote would have to be taken on a separate day to regular council elections.

Commenting on the legal difficulties, Lincolnshire City Council leader Ric Metcalfe 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 £1m.

He added: “I do not believe that anyone would view this as a good use of taxpayers’ money, especially as the outcome would not be binding.

“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.”

Cllr Metcalfe also stated that though the district council was in favour of a debate regarding devolution in local government, a referendum to consult residents about a deal would be “ludicrous” considering the cost and legal implications of such a vote.

A proposed deal on a unitary system would see the seven district councils and one county council in the region be brought together into one, two or three unitary authorities, which could take the form of a separate unitary authority for Lincoln and another authority for the rest of the county.

The county council leader Martin Hill had previously argued that a unitary system could create savings of up to £150m over five years, but now the proposed deal will have to be put forward to a consultation rather than a public referendum

District councils have been vocal about the proposed changes, as Cllr Metcalfe continued: “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.

“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.”

A devolution deal for Greater Lincolnshire had previously been rejected in October 2016 as the county council voted against the change.

Responding to devolution for the region, Cllr Metcalfe said: “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 £450m of new money for the region, to have been invested in housing and infrastructure.”

PSE contacted Lincolnshire County Council, but at the time of publication had not received a response.


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