Lancashire's devolution deal backed by county council, but divisions resurface

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Lancashire’s long-awaited devolution deal has inched closer to becoming a reality after county councillors backed the final draft of an agreement with the government.

However, longstanding divisions over the subject were once again on display at County Hall, with splits between - and even within - parties over the benefits of the devolved powers that have been secured after more than seven years of trying.

A majority of members approved what was a slightly tweaked version of the deal struck back in November, which was amended last week to take account of the results of a public consultation.

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Lancashire residents and businesses back county devolution deal
Lancashire County Council has backed the devolution deal by a majority - after a divisive debateLancashire County Council has backed the devolution deal by a majority - after a divisive debate
Lancashire County Council has backed the devolution deal by a majority - after a divisive debate

The blueprint, which has also this week received the support of Balckpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils - the two other authorities involved in drawing it up - will now be sent back to the government for officials to draft the regulations that will enact the agreement, subject to parliamentary approval.

The ruling Conservative group hailed an “historic” moment for the county, but the Labour opposition decried what their leader dismissed as an “absolutely pathetic” arrangement, which her party tried - but failed - to amend further.

County council leader Phillippa Williamson stressed that the recent consultation - which saw a majority of its nearly 1,900 respondents approve each of the deal’s eight key themes - was “not a referendum”, but had been a “comprehensive and exhaustive” engagement exercise.

She told the meeting that “the main negative feedback” in the process had come from district councils and their members - complaints which she sought to tackle during the debate.

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As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) has previously revealed, the county’s Labour and coalition-led districts have expressed a raft of concerns, particularly over the transfer of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) from their control to the new combined county authority (CCA), which will be created to oversee the devolved arrangements.

County Cllr Williamson said the deal ensured districts ”will be…involved in discussions that they have never been a part of before” on issues including transport and adult education.

“Rather than diminishing the role of the districts, the opposite is true. The formation of the CCA actually enhances the districts’ involvement in strategic work right across Lancashire,” the Tory leader added .

One of the main post-consultation alterations to the deal document was the insertion of a reference to UKSPF funding being “directed towards areas of need”.

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However, Labour’s shadow finance cabinet member Matthew Tomlinson put forward an amendment calling for the UKSPF cash - the first allocation of which totals £55m across Lancashire - to be officially delegated to the districts within the county council area “in line with current arrangements”.

The Labour proposal also sought full voting rights for the two district council representatives who will sit on the CCA as non-constituent members - a privilege permitted by national legislation, but not part of Lancashire’s deal, under which voting will be the preserve of the county council’s two CCA members and those representing Blackpool and and Blackburn councils, which will have one each.

County Cllr Tomlinson said the suggested changes would at least “allay some of the fears” amongst district councils, but insisted the deal was still a “poor” one.

“We believe it’s baby steps when others are taking great strides forward. We look at our neighbours [with devolution deals, who have] control of buses, [are] building new railway stations [and are] franchising public transport - all these exciting things are happening around us and...will not happen…under this deal,” he said.

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However, deputy county council leader Alan Vincent warned that Labour’s proposal would mean a reopening of negotiations with Blackpool and Blackburn - and the government. That scenario, he said, would mean “there is a very good chance that [the proposed deal] misses its parliamentary slot”.

“If it [does], it may never happen and we might have a situation in which we have no deal at all for three, four, five years - and you will cost Lancashire a fortune if that happens,“ County Cllr Vincent added.

While Labour also received criticism from the Tory side of the chamber for failing to support a deal which Labour-run Blackpool and Blackburn councils had helped develop, County Cllr Vincent did acknowledge that the party’s amendment would not need to be inserted at the stage of drawing up the regulations for the new CCA - and so could conceivably be added to the CCA’s constitution at a later date, if it was agreed in future.

Former Lancaster City Council leader Erica Lewis - who represents Lancaster South East for Labour - said it was not surprising that the consultation had won the support of a majority of respondents, because so many people were “desperate for devolution”.

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“But we want a devolution deal that works for Lancashire…and the puny proposal that you've put in front of us - when you had all the cards in your hand, dealing with a weak national government desperate for announcements to try and make it look stronger in Red Wall seats - …[represents] the very weakest transferral of powers,” County Cllr Lewis said.

Under the deal Lancashire will gain control over the adult education budget for the county and receive a one-off £20 million in capital funding to support “innovation-led growth”, including by maximising the benefits of the forthcoming arrival of the National Cyber Force headquarters in Samlesbury and the push towards a net-zero carbon economy.

While Liberal Democrat John Potter agreed with Labour that it was a “small” deal compared to what the county could have secured, he told the meeting that the two-strong Lib Dem group would nevertheless support it. However, he also highlighted the broader, related issue of parlous local council finances.

“The idea that this [deal] is going to revolutionise Lancashire is a fantasy - [and] none of this will make a difference unless we adequately fund local government .

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“If we don't sort out the funding…we will be caretakers over the skeletal remains of our councils. The future of local government is absolutely in the balance. Many councils are either too small to survive or, in [Lancashire County Council’s] case, too large to be efficient,” County Cllr Potter said.

Meanwhile, the county council’s two Green Party members came to different conclusions on the merits of the devolution deal - with group leader Gina Dowding stating that the Greens were the only party where such a divergence was allowed to be on show.

She said that there was a lack of “trust” amongst the districts about the intentions of the three so-called upper-tier authorities when it came to the deal - and also questioned its cash value.

“£20m…sounds like a lot of money, [but] the county council’s annual general fund is now over £1bn,” said County Cllr Dowding, claiming that the devolution bonus was not enough to get people “excited”.

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However, her colleague Scott Cunliffe - who represents Burnley Central West - said it was “the only game in town” and needed to be grasped because of the “massive competition” Lancashire has across the North of England for jobs in sectors like the low carbon economy.

Acting Labour group leader Jennifer Mein seized on the analogy often used by the top-tier leaders that Lancashire was now on “the devolution bus”, by quipping that “the bus has broken down”.

However, cabinet members queued up to extol the claimed virtues of the deal. Education and skills portfolio holder Jayne Rear said the highest level of public backing had come for the element of the agreement relating to those issues - showing that people and businesses understood that “a skilled workforce” was crucial to the county’s success.

“Working collaboratively with employers and skills providers, the [devolving] of the adult education budget will help us to link our skills provision to the needs of our local economy,” County Cllr Rear said.

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Meanwhile, economic growth cabinet member Aidy Riggott said that the deal would add close to £1bn a year to Lancashire's economy, boosting big and small businesses alike.


Apart from the beefed-up criteria to determine how UKSPF cash is distributed, other tweaks to the deal following the consultation include increasing district council representation on the new CCA’s audit committee to two members and a “wider commitment to ensure representation from district councils in the governance structures” of the new organisation.

The other changes were many technical in nature and out of the more than 50 themes identified in the consultation responses - all bar eight resulted in no changes being made.

Several criticisms were made of the housing element of the deal, with, on the one hand, concerns being expressed that it would do nothing to boost the volume of affordable housing, while on the other, claims that it risked leading to “overdevelopment and…erosion of the countryside”.

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In their response, the upper-tier trio said the agreement would enable new housing to be prioritised in those areas where future economic growth was expected - but stressed that local authority planning powers would remain the same.

On affordable housing, it was noted that the compulsory purchase powers that will come the CCA’s way will encourage the regeneration of previously-developed sites - potentially for affordable homes - which “might otherwise not come forward”.