Geoff Driver issued the warning after reports suggested that plans for elected mayors and a huge shake-up of local government in various parts of England had been kicked into the long grass – or maybe even buried beneath it.
The seemingly unstoppable momentum behind the government’s vision had sparked a flurry of activity in Lancashire in recent months – with councils coming up with sometimes contradictory suggestions about how to redraw the local authority map and some districts balking at the creation of a link between devolution and reorganisation.
All 15 council leaders in Lancashire agreed “in principle” over the summer to developing a mayoral combined authority and also pledged to explore how to simplify the county’s complex council structure – a contentious condition for devolved powers that was demanded by ministers.
A government “white paper” on the subject had been due this month and was being keenly-awaited by areas like Lancashire seeking more detail on what would be the biggest council overhaul in nearly 50 years.
However, it has now been suggested that the government will only consider pressing ahead with its plans in areas where there is “broad and deep support” for the changes – a characterisation that hardly describes Lancashire’s fraught scramble for consensus on the issue.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that the change-of-heart message was delivered by local government secretary Robert Jenrick on a recent call to district leaders.
It has also been reported that there will be just one limited round of devolution deals, involving only three areas – one of which will be Cumbria. It is the geographical implications of that prospect which most alarm County Cllr Driver.
“There is no doubt that without a combined authority in Lancashire, we’re just going to be left further behind [the mayoral areas of] Greater Manchester, Merseyside and now Cumbria, by the sounds of it.
“We’d be surrounded by organisations that are getting the lion’s share of the resources to help in the levelling up of the UK economy – and Lancashire will be left taking the crumbs from the rich man’s table.
“Lancashire leaders can’t agree on the weather, never mind on where economic development should take place – so a combined authority under the present system of local government would be ineffective and ineffectual.
“Yes, there would have to be changes and some people wouldn’t be happy about them – but it’s time everybody looked at what is best for the people they serve,” County Cllr Driver added.
The Conservative leader said that he would be writing to the government with an appeal not to the devolution agenda run aground. A typical devolution deal involves an area acquiring powers over issues like transport, skills and strategic planning – along with an extra £30m per year over the course of 30 years.
It was only three weeks ago that County Hall sent a blueprint to ministers making the case for a combined authority, elected mayor and sweeping changes to Lancashire’s local government landscape – with a proposal to scrap every council in the county and create three replacements.
The document forecast that council changes would lead to between £60m and £80m in savings over the next three years It also claimed that a mayoral model would allow the county to speak with “one single, credible voice” – while still building on the identities of Lancashire’s “unique towns and cities”.
However, the move sparked uproar from several district leaders who complained that they had not been consulted – and criticised the fact that the submission had not even been voted on by the county council itself before being sent to the government.
It was likely that if Lancashire had entered into meaningful discussions on devolution this autumn, next year’s county council elections would have been scrapped – with the expectation that the authority itself would have been abolished in 2022.
The district disquiet followed a separate row over a county-wide bid for regeneration funding to help recover from the Covid crisis, which led to the acrimonious break-up of a meeting of all of Lancashire’s leaders back in July. The monthly gatherings have not taken place since and appear to be permanently paused.
The Labour opposition group on the county council has said that it would support plans for a mayor and reorganisation if they were shown to benefit Lancashire – but has criticised the timing of the latest manoeuvres by both the government and County Cllr Driver.
County Labour leader Azhar Ali says that the whispers coming from Whitehall suggest that both projects are “dead for now”.
“I think it’ll be the status quo for the foreseeable future, because the government would have ended up having a big battle with its own foot soldiers in the districts over reorganisation – there would have been blue-on-blue attacks and I can’t see them risking that turmoil at a local level.
“We’ve instead been banging the drum for proper funding for councils to help us deal with Covid, because the government is failing miserably at the moment on testing and schools, some of which have had to shut completely.
“There should be tremors going through County Hall at the moment, seeing as County Cllr Driver has wasted all this time trying to create new councils and get next year’s county elections cancelled.
“But his attempt to try and hang on to power has been foiled by Boris,” County Cllr Ali said.
It is now believed that the devolution white paper will be delayed until early next year – although its contents were always unlikely to have shifted the stance of those implacably opposed to ditching the current two-tier council set-up in Lancashire.
Liberal Democrat group leader at County Hall, David Whipp welcomed the “apparent u-turn” by the government.
“The proposals put forward by the Conservative leader of the county council, without any consultation – including the creation of an elected mayor for one and a half million people – is the wrong thing to do and it’s certainly the wrong time.
“All our energy and efforts should be going into fighting Covid-19, not shuffling deckchairs,” County Cllr Whipp said.
Green party county councillor Gina Dowding – also speaking on behalf of independent members – said that “very few areas” will be able to demonstrate the broad and deep support for reorganisation now seemingly required by the government.
“What is clear is that local people trust their local council’s public health departments over and above the private sector. They trust local councils to deliver local services better than the private sector.
“Its about time government stopped all the conditions it attaches to local authority funding and instead devolved more powers, secure funds – and, indeed, respect – to councils for getting on with those jobs that it can do very well,” County Cllr Dowding urged.
A spokesperson for the ministry of housing, communities and local government said: “We have set out a clear commitment to level up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster.
“We are considering a range of options and will set out our detailed plans in the white paper that will be published this autumn.”
COULD THERE BE “A MIDDLE WAY”?
While there might be tentative agreement within Lancashire over the creation of a combined authority and an elected mayor – albeit one with “limited powers” – the proposed restructure of councils has exposed deep divisions between the county’s politicians.
County council leader Geoff Driver has written to the government suggesting the creation of three new standalone local authorities – “Central Lancashire” (based on the footprints of Preston, Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire councils), “North West Lancashire” (Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre, Lancaster and Ribble Valley) and “East Pennine Lancashire” (Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle).
The combined authority would draw its membership from these newly-streamlined “unitary” councils – whereas under the current arrangements, 15 council leaders would each have a seat at the top table.
However, two district leaders have told the LDRS that Lancashire could look to a previously-suggested solution to simplify the council structure in the county – by merging existing boroughs.
Before appearing to demand unitary councils over the summer, civil servants had indicated that ministers were open to the idea of maintaining the county/district split, provided that the tally of district authorities in Lancashire was cut from the current 12.
Wyre Council leader David Henderson said that the option should remain on the table as “a middle way if the government has got cold feet [on wholesale reorganisation]”.
“Everybody is saying that the two-tier structure is dead, but I disagree.
“The county council could devolve to the districts more control over the local services people really care about –gully-cleaning, for instance – to go with the things we already look after like keeping the parks looking nice and emptying the bins.
“You could then create a larger district council to take on those responsibilities – a Wyre and Fylde district authority, for example.
“The county council would have a new, reduced role and we could still create a mayoral combined authority [for strategic decisions].
“But the fact is that Wyre is still a well-run authority, delivering a great service even if the reorganisation process ends tomorrow,” added Cllr Henderson, who put forward a five-way unitary proposal in July on the same footprint as that subsequently suggested by the county council last month.
South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster – who has previously favoured the status quo when it comes to the local authority structure – said that the idea of slightly larger district footprints also appealed to him.
“We’re the closest authorities to our communities, as has been proven during the pandemic.
“It’s entirely possible to create a mayor and combined authority without the need for the kind of reorganisation being talked about – and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if this process has been delayed and doesn’t get pushed through in the way that some others might want,” Cllr Foster said.
DISTRICTS REACT TO DEVOLUTION DELAY
Ribble Valley Borough Council leader Stephen Atkinson – a staunch critic of moves to abolish district councils like his – said that a local authority overhaul would be “an unwelcome distraction” during efforts to deal with the pandemic.
“All local authorities need to be working together, 100 percent committed to fighting this disease. I think Lancashire can agree a combined authority when the time comes, but reorganisation has got in the way,” he said.
More than 10,000 people in Ribble Valley have signed a petition opposing a “takeover” of the district by Blackburn as part of a suggested single council for East Lancashire.
Preston has also proved a potential flashpoint in any future negotiations over reorganisation. The city council has proposed the same Central Lancashire solution as County Hall has suggested.
However, its proposed partners in South Ribble, Chorley and West Lancashire have also approached the government with their own plan for a three-way tie-up, which excludes their city neighbour.
Responding to reports that devolution has been delayed – or even derailed – Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said that while the current system “isn’t working for Preston”, it was unwise to make contested changes during the pandemic.
“The government should encourage consensus amongst local councils with solutions which work for them. As we have seen in Lancashire, that has been difficult to achieve.
“Flexibility around the range of options available to local government – such as not having arbitrary figures for the size of any new councils – would assist in bringing about that consensus,” Cllr Brown said.
Unlike the Lib Dem group at County Hall, the position of the party on the city council is to support a move to unitary authorities. Preston group leader John Potter said that it would be “a missed opportunity” not to see the overhaul through.
Pendle Council leader Mohammed Iqbal said that he believed that the apparent delay in the devolution process actually rendered it “dead and buried”.
Speaking shortly before the authority voted to write to the government rejecting County Hall’s three-unitary plan for Lancashire, he said: “Following the county council throwing its bottle out of the pram, [devolution] was as good as dead anyway. The government now needs to fund councils properly to deal with the pandemic until such time as they decide to resurrect reorganisation and a combined authority,” Cllr Iqbal said.
Lancaster City Council has this week agreed to draw up a “high-level” case proposing a merger with two district authorities over the border in Cumbria – Barrow Borough Council and South Lakeland District Council – to form a new uniatry for the area. That would clash with Cumbria County Council’s proposal for a single new authority within its existing borders.
Lancaster’s leader Erica Lewis said that although the timing of the government push for reorganisation was far from ideal, she could “not afford” to sit out the discussion – and claimed that the authority had already been disadvantaged by how the process had been conducted so far.
“It seems that the county councils have been given information and a deadline [for submissions] that we weren’t. I would like the government to at least leave the door open for a cross-border solution, which I believe is a far better option for Lancaster than the one put forward by the county council for us to become part of a ‘Greater Blackpool’.
“District councils walk every street, we know where every resident is, we know every inch of that ‘final mile’ to the front door,” County Cllr Lewis added.
Hyndburn Council leader Miles Parkinson says that Lancashire risks “stagnating” if a solution is not found to enable the creation of a combined authority.
“If it doesn’t happen now, I can’t see it happening before a general election. The easiest thing would be to remove the need for reorganisation and have all 15 councils with one vote [on a combined authority], with everything being done by consensus.
“If Lancashire is to be levelled up, we need to find a way forward to attract inward investment and have the same [benefits] as other areas of the North of England,” he said.
West Lancashire Council leader Ian Moran said any move towards council reorganisation requires more involvement from the public, not just the county’s politicians.
“At the moment, this is one man’s plan – County Cllr Driver’s. But I don’t think the government are listening at the moment anyway, because they have now realised that Covid hasn’t gone away and neither has Brexit,” Cllr Moran said.
Meanwhile, Blackburn Council leader Mohammed Khan – who first approached the government suggesting a Pennine Lancashire unitary over a year ago – said he was saddened that so little progress had been made on both reorganisation and devolution.
“We only have to look at other areas like Merseyside and Greater Manchester to see what they achieve from being part of a combined authority. And yet here we are Lancashire, with 1.5m people, and we haven’t been able to do the same.
“We have been sat around the table talking about this for five years and to me it feels like we haven’t got anywhere. Some people are putting their own position first.
“I think some Conservatives are worried that there could be a Labour mayor – well, so what? It could be a Tory mayor, an independent mayor, anyone at all – it’s part of the democratic process.
“Now the government can’t seem to make up its mind either – but, ultimately, what is best for Lancashire is best for Blackburn,” said Cllr Khan.
He added that the savings that could be generated by creating a new standalone authority for East Lancashire were needed now more than ever, because of the impact of the pandemic.
“We now have to cut the bone, because there is no flesh left on top of it – as it stands, we are £15m short [for the rest of this financial year] and that has the potential to rise by another £10m.
“Leaders elsewhere in the North West are saying the same thing – we won’t be able to manage.”
The leaders of Blackpool, Chorley, Fylde and Rossendale councils were all approached for comment. Burnley Council is currently without a leader – but the authority has resolved to oppose reorganisation as a pre-requisite of a devolution deal.
WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
Liberal Democrat peer and Pendle councillor Lord Tony Greaves asked in a written question in the House of Lords last month what the government’s advice was to two-tier areas like Lancashire about the “desirability, criteria and timescale” for local authority reorganisation.
MHCLG minister Lord Greenhalgh said that the government had set out a “clear commitment to level up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster”.
He added: “The government believes that areas moving to unitary status with more sustainable and efficient councils can have significant benefits for local people and businesses.”