Lancashire County Council elections 2021: The Leaders' Debate
Ahead of the Lancashire County Council elections on 6th May, the Local Democracy Reporting Service brought together the group leaders of the four main parties currently represented on the authority to discuss the big issues in the county.
You can watch the full debate in the video above or read the highlights below.
Taking part in the event were County Cllr Keith Iddon (Conservative deputy council and Tory group leader), County Cllr Azhar Ali (Labour group leader), County Cllr David Whipp (Liberal Democrat group leader) and County Cllr Gina Dowding (the sole Green Party representative on the authority.
The condition of the county’s roads is one of the top priorities in each of the party’s campaigns, with Labour claiming it is the number one issue on the doorstep and the Conservatives saying that unparalleled investment will soon show through.
Keith Iddon: “We’re on top of the job. If we were to resurface all the roads in Lancashire we’d need £500m – we haven’t got that, [but] we have got a record amount this [year], £48m. The government has given us more than ever and we have put more in than any other [county] administration has done – we have invested £318m [in highways over the last four years]. I’m proud of our record [on the] roads – and you’ll see a big improvement shortly because of the investment we’re making.”
Azhar Ali: “The quality of workmanship on some of the portholes that are filled is actually appalling. I’ve seen potholes…where they have come in, dumped some Tarmac, hammered it down – and within six or eight days, it’s crumbling at the edges. Then somebody has to come back again to redo it. Four years ago, [the Tories] put out a leaflet [saying] we will fix your roads, your roads will be better than they are now. People would say to you our roads are worse now that they were four years ago. We can be smarter in the way we tackle potholes. It’s just a complete farce and it’s time the people of Lancashire had change, because they deserve better.
David Whipp: “We want to know where the £318m has gone, because all the residents we represent are saying the roads are rubbish and they can’t believe £318m has been spent. Patchwork pothole repairs are inadequate – they fall to bits and we are wasting money on work that is just not good enough. We can invest sensibly rather than squandering money on unsealed edges of pothole patching which within a few weeks during winter, or the following winter, just falls to bits. We are throwing money literally down the drain instead of doing a proper job and actually resurfacing roads.”
Gina Dowding: “The basics are important to the Greens and potholes and keeping a good standard [of repair] are absolutely necessary, we recognise that. We need to get away from how much money per se [is spent on roads], because the reality is the residents know the quality of the work that’s being done in many cases is just not good enough. So it’s not just about throwing money at it, it’s about monitoring those contractors from the private sector that you’ve brought in that [aren’t] doing the job up to standard.”
Keith Iddon: “People [say], ‘You’re just putting some Tarmac in’ – sometimes that’s all you can do when weather conditions don’t allow you to do any more. Cllr Whipp doesn’t know what we do – we put adhesive in, we seal it, then we put the inlay in [the hole]. I will admit we do have contractors sometimes that don’t do the job properly – and it’s rectified. The government inspectors rate our roads as [some] of the best in the country. The team we have, our own team, I’d back them against any team in the country.”
The county council last year committed to shifting Lancashire away from a reliance on carbon by 2030.
Gina Dowding: “An early shift and transformation into a low-carbon economy will reap huge benefits for our residents. There are huge training opportunities and jobs going to be available in the green economy, in renewable energy and bringing our agricultural economy to a local level. I know loads of people who would really like to allow their children to walk to school, but at the moment it just doesn’t feel as though walking – and cycling – is safe enough. If we invest in the infrastructure, we actually have less congestion on the roads and we have healthier people, cleaner air and all the other benefits. I would like to see the climate action benefits be a test for every single [council] policy.”
Azhar Ali: “Declaring a climate change emergency [would show] real intent. We have got to use opportunities with the universities…to make sure we develop new green technologies, create the jobs for the future and actually invest money – working with industry – to make sure we can get people retained on green technologies and [give] young people an opportunity. We want to…promote a green recovery fund. We need to look at where we can transform our countryside into nature reserves. We have got places…where, with a bit of stimulus, we can transform the green lungs between our towns and make sure they’re not built on. We [also] need electric charging points – there aren’t enough.”
Keith Iddon: “We have put a lot of electric charging points in, we have changed a lot of the council’s vehicles to electric, we have slashed landfill usage and [increased] green waste recycling. It was brought home to me when a lot of young people came to County Hall…and wanted to meet somebody [to discuss climate change]. [They] said, ‘It’s our future – your future has been a good one’ – and it has. You are pushing at an open door with me and we need to move on and make the future better for all these younger people. We’re investing heavily in cycle lanes and…my vision for Preston and Lancaster [and elsewhere] is we get parts of them car free within the next four years.”
David Whipp: “One of our proposals is 100 percent full fibre broadband for the whole of Lancashire, including rural areas – I think we need to embrace the reduction in travelling [as a result of] people working from home. The county council is going down the route of incineration for waste and that is no more than fossil fuel burning. What is coming out of those stacks of incineration is carbon dioxide – and that’s contributing to the climate crisis. [Lib Dem] green recovery strategies will see Lancashire at the cutting edge of developing green technologies and making use of all that skilled advanced technology knowledge that we have in the county, putting it to good use.”
How can Lancashire best get back on its feet after the Covid crisis?
Azhar Ali: “One of the things I have appreciated more is the countryside – our canals, parks and footpaths. These are all areas [that], because of many years of Tory cuts, have suffered – we haven’t been able to spend the money on improving our canal towpaths or our footpaths and access to the countryside. These things are actually critical now for people’s health – physical health, but also mental health. Our town centres and city centres will never be the same again. There is an opportunity to reshape [them] with more housing, but also family-friendly facilities….somewhere to bring up children.
David Whipp: “I’d like to praise the people of Lancashire for the way they have responded to the pandemic. There is still a lot of work to be done and the threat is still there – we need continued care in everything we do. I’m looking for a green recovery – I hope that we will use the opportunities that have been created to renew our town centres, perhaps with homes rather than businesses, with fibre broadband allowing…agile working.”
Gina Dowding: “There have been some positive changes during this time and we have to embed those. The home-working culture that has come about [is] not ideal for everybody, but it certainly has worked for some people and, if that was supported, we could have less congestion on the roads and more convenient patterns of work for some people. I think there has been a huge appreciation of our green spaces during the pandemic. I hope [people are] looking forward to being outside more often – it’s one of the things that we have to do to control the pandemic. I think it would be great if we had more children playing outside.”
Keith Iddon: “The main thing [is] we have got to get Lancashire moving again. A lot of people don’t want to stop at home – people enjoy companions, people enjoy going to [their workplace], they want to engage and be part of a team. For that reason there is [the county council’s £12.8m] Lancashire Economic Recovery Fund. We must get the economy going again, because without that, we will not have any money to spend on any green spaces [or] anything to do with the environment. We’re trying to recover in a green way. We have got to get back, we have got to get motivated and we will do – and the people of Lancashire will, because that’s what they do.”
When the county council set its budget in February, it had a forecast budget deficit of £48m by 2023/24 – down from £200m four years ago – and more than £150m in reserves.
Azhar Ali: “The county council has lost over £600m in revenue [since 2010]. There was a massive deficit and Labour, working with the Lib Dems, reduced that deficit quite significantly [prior to 2017]. [Cash for the current] deficit isn’t going to appear out of magic unless the government gives us additional funding. That deficit is going to have to be managed by making significant cuts to services – social services and children’ services have suffered greatly. Yes, LCC’s finances have to be managed – Labour will manage them effectively – but we also will go to government and shout out loudly about why Lancashire needs more money.”
Keith Iddon: “We took a council that was absolutely rock bottom and we’ve turned it around by good management [and] by investment. Cllr Ali kept telling us that we’d never be able to set a budget [and] that we were going to go broke – but we haven’t done. We kept it going, we’ve kept the services going – we reinstated all the bus services, the museums, the libraries – all these services that people wanted. And that’s through good management, it’s through people who know what they’re doing. We are in a very strong position and we are building on that.”
David Whipp: “The whole of local government is bust in [a] sense, because social care and personal care costs are not being adequately funded. Boris Johnson promised he would sort this one out – and he hasn’t done. I do not agree with what the [Conservative county] administration has done. They have hit people the hardest who are least able to afford [it]. This year, on top of that, they increased the council tax by double the amount they needed to do. We could and should have deferred those increases in council tax until next year when hopefully the pandemic is in the past.”
Gina Dowding: “Local government is severely underfunded. We have to have some principles underlying the way we spend money. I think that early intervention and prevention [should be] the core basic way that we’re going to provide services, because we have got to think longer term, we have to prevent illness and things getting worse – you invest to save. We can’t keep saying we can’t afford to do that now – because in terms of the climate crisis, we have now got a decade. But there are so many benefits to be realised in terms of not just saving carbon emissions, but improving people’s quality of life.”
FULL CANDIDATE LIST
Details of all the candidates standing in divisions across Lancashire can be found here.