Should the number of councils in Lancashire be slashed?

The last time local government had a major overhaul in Lancashire, the Ford Cortina was the best-selling car in the UK, Terry Jacks topped the charts with Seasons in the Sun and the country had just emerged from the three-day working week.

The year was 1974 and, whether your memory of those events is distant or non-existent, the local authority landscape in the county has changed very little since.

Could County Hall take on responsibility for every council service in Lancashire?

Could County Hall take on responsibility for every council service in Lancashire?

The reforms which were ushered in over four decades ago are probably best remembered locally for cutting loose several parts of historical Lancashire from the newly-created administrative county and dispatching them to metropolitan authorities in Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

That move still sparks impassioned pleas in some quarters for the boundaries of geographical Lancashire to continue to be recognised as incorporating places like Southport and Saddleworth. But less likely to prompt a debate is whether the so-called “two-tier” structure of local government which came into effect at the same time is still fit for purpose 45 years later.

“It is confusing for people, because they don’t know – and nor should they be bothered – which local authority provides which service,” Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver says.

“The demands on councils are also very different today and I’m absolutely convinced that the most efficient and effective form of local government is unitary – which also provides direct accountability to one local authority.”

Twelve district councils currently operate beneath the county council in Lancashire

Twelve district councils currently operate beneath the county council in Lancashire

Unitary authorities are standalone councils which have responsibility for every service in their area – like Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils, which broke away from the rest of the county in the late 1990s in the only change to the local system since the mid-1970s.

Elsewhere, Lancashire stuck firmly to the so-called two-tier arrangement, which sees district or city councils like Preston delivering some local services such as emptying the bins – while County Hall is responsible for big ticket items, like social care, right across the region.

Other parts of the country have seen government-initiated switches to unitary status over the past 20 years, but the current administration last month said that it would not be imposing change on any area. Instead, it has invited councils to come forward with proposals around which local opinion is “coalescing” – removing the prospect of unanimity being a requirement of reorganisation.

In spite of his preference for standalone councils, County Cllr Driver says that the present system does work in Lancashire, but could benefit from greater co-operation between local authorities. He adds that he has “no strong view” on how many single-tier councils should replace the current 15 across Lancashire – if the county, districts and unitaries should ever be amalgamated.

“I do have a strong view that Lancashire should not be looked at in a piecemeal fashion in order to see what the best form of local government is – we should look at it as a whole,” County Cllr Driver says.

Earlier this year, four councils in East Lancashire wrote to the government expressing their interest in forming a unitary authority for their part of the county. But since then, changes in political control have threatened to derail the plan.

While steering clear of the politics of the situation, Lancashire County Council chief executive Angie Ridgwell – a veteran of departmental mergers during her time in Whitehall – warns that reorganisation can be “a distraction”.

“You need to be very clear that a restructure is going to bring service benefits and financial benefits to the taxpayer – [especially when we provide] services for vulnerable people which are critical to their daily lives and have to be maintained in all circumstances,” Ms. Ridgwell says.

“We also need to have a significant role working with the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership and local businesses to do everything we can to stimulate the Lancashire economy, so that we are creating local wealth and jobs for our residents.

“Unitaries are not a panacea in their own right – they are not going to bring more money into Lancashire in and of themselves.”

The merger of six authorities to form Dorset Council earlier this year brought promises of extra investment and multi-million pound savings. However, last week, the authority warned that it was facing a £12m overspend.

Labour opposition group leader on Lancashire County Council, Azhar Ali, says that the government’s prospectus for reorganisation is “a dog’s breakfast”.

“The government either supports the two-tier system in Lancashire or it doesn’t – it shouldn’t be pitting district against district to come up with their own plans,” Coun Ali says.

“After losing half a billion pounds in funding, what Lancashire needs is an injection of cash to support our services.

“If reorganisation means hundreds of millions of pounds coming to Lancashire, then it is worth sitting down with the government – but if it’s about squeezing more out of us, then I wouldn’t support that.”

A study by consultants Ernst and Young back in 2016 suggested the most financially efficient form of restructuring in any two-tier area would be to create a county-wide unitary, rather than two or three new councils.

However, David Whipp, Liberal Democrat group leader on the county council, says that if social care responsibilities were fully merged with the NHS, it would be County Hall which could be done away with.

“If there were a combined body answerable to local people on health and social care issues, then the remaining local authority responsibilities could easily sit with the district councils,” County Cllr Whipp says.

But in the meantime, he has compared reorganisation to “shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic”, because of the financial difficulties faced by local authorities.

The government may well have dropped its demand for complete consensus, but in a county as politically and demographically diverse as Lancashire, even grudging general agreement could be difficult to secure.

Councillors representing the four corners of this sprawling county often argue that the other three get a better deal than their own – and then there are the party political loyalties which are inevitably never far from the surface.

It is against that backdrop that it is often difficult to persuade all 84 county councillors to come to a single position, let alone one shared by the hundreds of other district councillors across the patch.

So the spread of support for any proposal which might come forward would be difficult to predict and would no doubt depend, at least to some extent, on how the shape of a new political map would translate into solid power – both for parties and individuals.

There is also the question of whether Lancashire should be focused on financial rather than organisational matters – unless, of course, politicians ultimately decide that the two are totally intertwined.

Ultimately, there will be plenty more than power at stake if Lancashire ever does decide to redraw the local government map.

THE WRONG REORGANISATION?

Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver says that local authorities in the region should be turning their attention to how they could better co-operate under the existing council arrangements.

“Regardless of what structure of local government we have, we need some sort of combined authority so that we can ask the government to delegate some of the functions and resources to Lancashire that they have done to Greater Manchester and Merseyside,” he explains.

READ MORE >>> One hundred business leaders call for devolved powers for the whole of the North

It is four years since Lancashire first began to consider the concept of a combined authority – which would see councils work together on cross-border strategic issues like major transport and economic development projects. Such an arrangement would also be likely to secure a devolution deal from the government – worth £30m per year over 30 years – which has been handed to more than half a dozen other parts of the country, including some of Lancashire’s nearest neighbours.

In spite of forming a shadow combined authority in 2016, the plans for fully-fledged version have repeatedly stalled. Initially, the sticking point for some districts, like Wyre and Ribble Valley, was the need to create an elected mayor in order to unlock the extra cash and powers. But even after that requirement was removed by the government for shire counties, it has proved impossible to achieve unanimity amongst the county’s 15 councils.

Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali has also called for progress on the plans.

“It’s important for us to have a vehicle to get some investment into Lancashire and the government now needs to refocus on the counties, rather than just telling us how good the cities are,” he says.

Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry MP last week expressed his disappointment at the fact that Lancashire had not yet come to an agreement on a way forward. Earlier this week, one hundred business leaders called for devolution to become the default position for the whole of the North.

COULD CENTRAL LANCASHIRE GO ITS OWN WAY?

The combined population of the three councils covering Central Lancashire is just under 350,000, according to the last census – putting the area comfortably above the government’s minimum size of 300,000 for a single local authority.

Preston, Chorley and South Ribble councils are currently working on the next incarnation of a joint local plan for the area, which sees them co-operate on delivering housing targets across their patch. Meanwhile, Chorley and South Ribble have shared several of their back office functions for the past decade and are in the process of extending that agreement further.

So would a standalone Central Lancashire council be a sensible option to emerge from any redesign of the local authority system?

For now, the councils concerned are keeping their cards close to their collective chests.

Deputy leader of Preston City Council, Peter Moss, indicated that the authority was open to suggestions about the future.

“We have a strong track-record of partnership working across the local area and are committed to continuing to work collaboratively wherever possible. We also remain open-minded to any ongoing discussions and ideas that would benefit the city of Preston and its residents,” Cllr Moss said.

Across the river at South Ribble Borough Council, a spokesperson said that “no decisions were made” on the subject at a recent meeting of Lancashire Leaders, but that “further discussions will be had”.

Chorley Council mooted the idea of going it completely alone back in 2014, but the idea never came to pass – and would now be outlawed under the government’s latest stipulations about population size. More recently, deputy council leader Peter Wilson and Chorley MP Sir Lindsay Hoyle met with the then local government secretary James Brokenshire to discuss a “unitary solution” for the borough back in May.

WILL THE EAST BREAK FREE?

A proposal put forward earlier this year by four East Lancashire councils – Blackburn with Darwen, Rossendale, Burnley and Pendle – to form a single unitary authority appears to have been thrown into doubt by May’s local election results.

The Liberal Democrat group on Pendle Council made it a precondition of a deal to support a minority Labour administration that the authority withdrew its backing for the plans.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Burnley Council – now run by a coalition – said that the authority has passed “no resolution either for or against an East Lancashire unitary council”.

“However, the new administration which came into power in May has said in its statement of priorities that there should be no East Lancashire unitary authority taking power away from local people,” they added.

Just last week Rossendale and Darwen MP Jake Berry – a keen supporter of the plan – called for a combined authority and elected mayor just for East Lancashire.

County Cllr Azhar Ali has written to Mr. Berry – who is also Northern Powerhouse minister – requesting a meeting on the subject over the summer.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that the government "does not have sufficient information on the proposals from the leaders from these councils to take a full view as to whether this potential proposal is likely to meet the criteria". They added that Hyndburn Council had also expressed an interest in the proposal in March.

Rossendale Council was approached for comment as one of the authorities which wrote to the government requesting reorganisation in East Lancashire.

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said:

“The government respects that any change to council structures should be led by councils and local people.

“It is up to the councils in Lancashire to decide whether local views on unitarisation meet the criteria and request an invitation to submit proposals.”

WHO DOES WHAT?

Lancashire County Council is responsible for adult and children’s social care, highways, education, libraries and some major planning applications like fracking.

District councils look after housing, waste collection, parks, licensing and most planning applications.