The county’s 15 council leaders have received a letter from local government secretary Robert Jenrick inviting them to take advantage of an idea sketched out by Boris Johnson earlier this month in a speech on his so-called “levelling up” agenda to reduce inequalities across the country.
The Prime Minister pledged that he would “rewrite the rule book” on devolution in England’s shire counties and asked local leaders to come up with a plan for their patch. In return, they were promised “the tools to change your area for the better”- provided their proposal was based on “strong, accountable leadership”.
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It appeared to mark a more flexible approach to devolution for counties like Lancashire, signalling a shift by ministers away from the fixed governance framework within which the promise of greater freedoms has previously been wrapped.
Before it would consider devolving more responsibility and money to an area, the government has previously demanded the creation of a new combined authority, made up of existing councils, along with an elected mayor to oversee the arrangement.
It was on that stipulation that Lancashire’s devolution dreams have so often run aground in the past, with various councils at various times objecting to one or both of those requirements.
Last year, for the first time, all of Lancashire’s local authority leaders agreed to explore the two principles. However, it came in the wake of an additional government demand to reduce the number of councils in the county in order to streamline the membership of any new combined authority. The prospect of redrawing Lancashire’s complicated council map served as another sticking point to prevent county-wide agreement.
A flurry of activity late last summer saw Lancashire County Council put forward a pitch to the government that would have led to the abolition of every local authority in the county – including its 132-year-old self – and the creation of three so-called “unitary” councils.
The County Hall proposal – made by then leader Geoff Driver – would have seen the formation of a solo Central Lancashire authority, based on the footprints of the existing Preston, Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire councils; one for “North West Lancashire”, binding together the Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre, Lancaster and Ribble Valley council areas; and a third for “East Pennine Lancashire” covering Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle .
Preston City Council had previously submitted its own proposal based on the same Central Lancashire option suggested by the county council – only for South Ribble, Chorley and West Lancashire to make a bid to form a three-way authority, without Preston, just 24 hours later.
Ultimately, none of the ideas – nor a 2019 proposal led by Blackburn with Darwen Council for a Pennine Lancashire authority – persuaded the government to launch formal public consultations.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is not not currently considering any of the previously-submitted blueprints for standalone authorities in Lancashire.
An MHCLG spokesperson said that “where there is interest and strong local support, then we will consider issuing invitations for proposals”. That process would now almost certainly be carried out under the Prime Minister’s “county deals” umbrella.
Last week, the government rejected a bid by Lancaster City Council to merge with Barrow Borough Council and South Lakeland District Council in Cumbria to form a cross-border authority.
In the letter sent to all Lancashire leaders in the wake of his boss’s levelling up speech, Mr. Jenrick said that “towns and villages should neither be excluded from the devolution enjoyed by many cities and suburbs, nor forced to wear a model which can seem ill-fitting”. He explicitly stated that while proposals should be based on a "sensible economic geography" and include suggestions for "significant reform", that did not mean a move to unitary councils was a "prerequisite to participation".
Mr. Johnson had said that although directly-elected mayors for individual counties were still an option, there were also "other possibilities".
Yet by giving Lancashire free reign to design its own devolution solution, the government may have recreated a familiar problem – the difficulty of getting the county’s councils to agree amongst themselves.
Lancashire County Council’s new leader Phillippa Williamson also suggested that now might not be the moment to pursue any kind of council restructuring.
“I strongly believe that what is important right now is that we, as a county, firmly concentrate on helping the economy recover from the effects of the pandemic and making things better for residents. I would not want local government reorganisation to become a distraction to that aim,” County Cllr Williamson said in the wake of the Cumbria decision.
Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley does not underestimate the challenge of coming to a consensus over devolution and any associated demands – but says that the change in tone from Whitehall gives Lancashire the chance to “set the agenda”.
“We need to come up with a coherent plan. The risk is that we might do that and not get anything back from the government – but the advantage is that we can come up with something that works well for us, because there isn’t a fixed template [dictating it],” said Cllr Bradley, who believes a move away from the current two-tier system in the county would be the best option, but acknowledges that agreement on that remains a distant prospect.
Preston City Council’s deputy leader Martyn Rawlinson says that “uncertainty” over future devolved powers and funding – along with inherent underfunding and limited devolved powers over planning, infrastructure and the economy – are the key barriers that “damage the ability of councils to deliver for their areas”.
He added: “Preston has always made the most of opportunities to work across authorities to maximise investment in our area – City Deal is a prime example. We have also played a key role in the efforts to create a combined authority for Lancashire.
“Unfortunately, the political, social and economic differences across the region have made it difficult to produce a coherent vehicle and strategy for the area,
“Preston Labour itself already has a vision for the city with the Preston Model. Our community wealth building policies have trapped hundreds of millions of pounds in the wider economic area and we will continue to bring these policies forward with the help of all our partners.
“The future of devolved powers and funding for Lancashire very much depends on the wishes of other authorities, but Preston will play a full part in shaping the future as we always have done. We hope that others are willing to do the same to equalise health and prosperity in the region,” said Cllr Rawlinson.
South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster said that the latest government position on county devolution was “incredibly vague”.
“I am really pushing for a combined authority because of the economic growth benefits it can bring – but I hope that we can now finally separate that [process] from local government reorganisation, because they don’t belong together.
“I wouldn’t lose any sleep over whether the leader of a combined authority is a current council leader or an elected mayor – but I think it’s dangerous to have this piecemeal approach,” Cllr Foster said.
Ribble Valley Borough Council leader Stephen Atkinson – a long-term critic of plans for reorganisation – noted that an online petition to retain the district in its current form has been signed by over 10,000 locals.
He also said that he wanted to see the contents of a long-delayed government white paper on devolution – which has now been subsumed into a broader document on levelling up – before “considering what the best options are and taking into account the views of the residents of Ribble Valley”.
He added: “The pandemic has tested the capacity of councils to deliver core services, which we have done in Ribble Valley and I’m proud of our performance. We also had to take on extra responsibilities and at this time, local government needs to concentrate on recovering from the pandemic and not be distracted by structural reform arguments.”
Wyre Council leader David Henderson said that the latest government move towards county deals could create an opportunity for the kind of arrangement he first suggested upon taking power at the authority over three years ago.
“Rather than a combined authority, it would be a combined working group – all the leaders sitting round the table with one vote each and one of them acting as chair to speak to the government on behalf of Lancashire on [issues such as] bidding for funding,” Cllr Henderson explained.
Mohammed Khan, leader of Blackburn with Darwen Council, warned that Lancashire was in danger of being “left very much behind” by areas across the North which had secured devolved powers.
“I hope some common sense will prevail – I just want the best for the whole of Lancashire. My personal opinion is that the easiest solution is still three unitary authorities with half a million population in each,” said Cllr Khan.
The government has previously indicated that any new councils must serve populations of no more than 600,000 and no fewer than 300,000 – although the latter floor was breached in last week’s decision to create two new councils in Cumbria.
West Lancashire Borough Council leader Ian Moran said it was “surprising” that the government was no longer considering the reorganisation proposals made last year – but added that Lancashire’s leaders would now have a conversation about the shift in stance and the implications for the county.
“We need a joined-up approach, but we also need a lot more detail [from the government]. When we have discussed it, we need to get the minister involved again and find out exactly what’s on offer and what they want us to do.”
Cllr Moran says he has seen the benefits of devolution after his council – which borders the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority – became associated members of that body because of its close connections to the area.
After Lancaster City Council’s unsuccessful bid to form “The Bay” authority with its Cumbrian neighbours, leader Caroline Jackson and her counterparts in the proposal expressed their disappointment and said they would reflect on the announcement and “decide what our next steps should be, in the best interests of our residents, our organisations and our businesses”.
Burnley Council last year resolved that reorganisation proposals should not be advanced until publication of the government’s devolution white paper, while Pendle Council – at that point controlled by a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition – also said that moves towards a combined authority and elected mayor should be halted until the government’s policy intentions were published. The Conservatives have since taken control of the authority.
Burnley, Pendle and Blackpool councils were both approached for comment on the current state of play with devolution in Lancashire, as were the leaders of Hyndburn and Rossendale. Fylde Borough Council declined to comment.
The LDRS understands that the county deals announcement is likely to be discussed at a meeting of Lancashire’s leaders on Tuesday.
A MHCLG spokesperson added: “The pandemic has rightly necessitated resources across Whitehall and in local government being re-allocated to tackling Covid-19 and on economic recovery.
“We are conscious that councils are focussed on service delivery as we recover from the pandemic and will also want to see the Levelling Up White Paper before considering developing proposals for local government reform.”