Burnley wants better controls over how devolution cash is spent - but will its stance scupper a deal?

Burnley Council has called for more accountability in the oversight of any money Lancashire secures from the government in a devolution deal.

By Paul Faulkner
Saturday, 29th January 2022, 3:08 pm

All of Lancashire’s councils are currently being asked to approve the draft basis for a proposal that would see Lancashire handed as much £5.6bn in devolved cash covering areas such as skills, housing, transport, economic growth and climate change.

The 15 local authority leaders in the county came to an agreement amongst themselves earlier this month and are now seeking backing for the resultant document from the full memberships of each of their councils, which would permit them to continue discussions and develop a bid that would eventually be submitted to the government.

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What will Burnley Council's amendment mean for Lancashire's devolution blueprint?

As well as the potential scope of the powers that Lancashire could secure, the blueprint also sets out a series of principles for how any new body set up to be responsible for the additional funding would be governed.

However, a vote at a meeting of Burnley’s full council to change the wording of the leaders’ plan in that regard sparked a warning from Lancashire County Council’s leader that it could cause the whole process to unravel.

Historical wrangles over the possibility of an elected mayor and the streamlining of Lancashire’s complex local authority structure have been set aside now that they no longer appear to be pre-requisites for the government to do a deal. The leaders have explicitly stated that they do not support either of those options and have instead floated the idea of a joint committee or statutory board – and laid out how it would operate.

It would conduct its business on a one member, one vote basis, requiring a two thirds majority before any decision could be implemented. Individual councils would have the right of a veto if a proposed project is in their patch, if their money is required for it or if they can demonstrate that it is “reasonably likely to have a material impact on their area”- unless there are special circumstances.

The 15 councils have been asked to agree those basic principles – and of the 11 where the question has so far been put, 10 have done so.

However, Burnley Council voted by a majority to adopt an amendment by Labour councillor Shah Hussain who suggested that the authority should instead just “note” the principles – and went on to request that Lancashire leaders strengthen the “democratic leadership, accountability and transparency” of any proposed new body.

He said that the forthcoming government white paper on “levelling up” might influence any future arrangements in any case.

Burnley’s Conservative deputy mayor Cosima Towneley – who is also cabinet member for children and families on the county council – condemned what she said amounted to “bad faith” by the ruling Labour party in the borough who had been “negotiating all this time”.

“Is the Labour Party behind its leader or not? To think that the governance can be changed after it has been agreed …by 15 of our leaders – which is a first in itself and something which…I would have thought was like herding ferrets – is unbelievable. To add [it] at this late hour [is] something which could upset the whole deal.

“If we do not wish to be left out in the cold, I would advise everyone to vote against this amendment,” Cllr Towneley implored.

Green Party councillor Andy Fewings warned that changes to the leaders’ agreement could pose a threat to the very existence of Burney Council in the longer term.

“If [the government] can see that we can’t even agree on a set of principles which will come back for a vote again [before being implemented], they might think: ‘This lot can’t agree on anything – let’s abolish all the councils and put unitaries [new standalone councils] in’,” Cllr Fewings said.

However, the Labour former council leader – and current Burnley mayor – Mark Townsend said that in his long experience of devolution discussions in Lancashire, he could not imagine anybody “getting over-excited about changing the word ‘agree’ to ‘note’”.

He added that there was a more fundamental issue that needed to be addressed.

“Getting money and powers, [comes] with clear and defined responsibilities in terms of how you govern…and those responsibilities need to be practiced through effective, sound governance, so that everyone can believe in and trust going forward – and it’s in the early days that those foundations and building blocks are laid.

“Not mentioned once in [the proposed] core principles for budgets that will amount to £800m [per year] are the words ‘transparency’, ‘efficiency’, [or] ‘accountable’,” Cllr Townsend said.

Burnley is one of two Lancashire councils so far to have amended the recommendations agreed by the 15 council leaders – and the only one to have focused on the governance arrangements. Preston City Council this week inserted wording calling for Lancashire to seek similar powers to those enjoyed by the mayor-led combined authorities in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.

After news of both councils’ amendments emerged, Lancashire County Council leader County council leader Phillippa Williamson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that while individual authorities were free to take whatever path they wanted when considering the draft agreement, she hoped those who had chosen to deviate from it would think again.

“We’re disappointed that Burnley and Preston councils have decided not to work with the other Lancashire councils, because being united is the key to unlocking a meaningful devolution deal that will benefit all our residents.

“Because they have changed the joint report that was signed off by all 15 leaders in Lancashire, it means Burnley and Preston have removed themselves from our collective position. Of course, they have every right to do this, but we do hope they will reconsider and demonstrate a clear commitment to the shared aims and ambitions by passing the agreed recommendation at their councils unamended.

“Any other position does not promote to government the perception of a Lancashire that is working together and puts the whole process at risk,” said County Cllr Williamson, who was also speaking on behalf of the leaders of Lancashire’s two unitary authorities – Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen – as well as the chair and deputy chair of the district leaders’ group, Ribble Valley leader Stephen Atkinson and Chorley leader Alistair Bradley.

Back at the debate in Burnley, borough council leader Afrasiab Anwar told members that a county deal with the government was needed so that Lancashire was not “left behind”.

“It’s not about unitary [standalone] councils, it’s not about local government reorganisation. – and it’s not about combined authorities or elected mayors,” he added.