The leader of Lincolnshire County Council Martin Hill has said proposals for a unitary authority system for Lincolnshire will not be put to a public referendum in May, but a consultation later in the year.
Lincolnshire county councillors will be asked to decide whether to collect views of county residents on plans in a consultation at a meeting on Friday, February 24.
Proposals would see the current county and district councils dissolved and replaced with one or a few authorities, responsible for the delivery of all services.
As indicated in previous announcements, the county council had proposed that a county-wide referendum would be held on the same day as county council elections on May 4, 2017.
In a live interview with Lincolnshire Reporter, Councillor Hill recognised a handful of district council leaders had voiced objections to plans and sought legal advice against the format of the referendum.
He added that a referendum would not now be conducted and that to have held the exercise on a a separate day to the county council elections would cost taxpayers in the region of £1.2 million.
An opinion poll, similar to the consultation carried out ahead of the county’s decision on devolution, will now be considered for Autumn 2017.
Councillor Hill added: “With the referendum there is confusion. What we’re now proposing is an extensive consultation exercise, like with the libraries.
“A referendum wouldn’t be legally binding. The actual decision is made by parliament, but they would require a require a consultation with the public.
“We deliver 80% of the services already so you could argue the 20% wouldn’t make much difference. The man in the street just wants ‘the council’ to sort out his problem.
“At the minute we’re consulting on the principle of the unitary council. It needs to be discussed and we are looking at examples like Wiltshire where they work in partnership with town and parish councils. I would stress at this stage we’re not talking about any particular model.”
The council estimates that a unitary system with fewer councils could save as much as £150 million over five years.
City of Lincoln Council leader Ric Metcalfe has publicly opposed proposals to scrap the current two tier authority in the county.
He stated that despite previous assurances that a referendum would come at minimal cost, the vote would have to have been held on a separate date due to legal restrictions and come at a £1 million cost to taxpayers.
The council says legal advice received 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.”
Councillor Ric Metcalfe said: “If the county council had consulted on this proposal with any of the district councils prior to their announcement, we could have raised our concerns then. Sadly, they did not.
“Hopefully, they will now 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 cannot support such an approach.
“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.
“A county unitary would be too remote a tier of 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 will not happen under a county unitary.”