Council leader believes quitting Lancashire would boost Burnley and its East Lancashire neighbours
As revealed last week in the Burnley Express, Burnley Council and neighbours Pendle, Rossendale and Blackburn have asked the Government for permission to form a new 'Pennine' unitary authority, something Burnley Council leader Mark Townsend believes would boost all four areas.
If granted, the four areas with a population of around 400,000 people, would leave Lancashire County Council and become responsible for major areas on a local level including education, social care and highways.
Coun. Townsend said: "I'm delighted that all the leaders are in agreement on taking this forward. We want to be financially sustainable going forward, which as things stand, is becoming increasingly difficult.
"I wish we'd done this earlier. Being in a strong group of four centred on East Lancashire puts us in a good position to bid for big projects. At the moment, individual borough councils are competing against each for funding or relying on Preston-centric Lancashire County Council.
"I feel as East Lancashire neighbours we have a lot more in commone than places on the Fylde Coast and other parts of West Lancashire for instance."
Coun. Townsend, who has championed a business-first policy for Burnley in recent years, said that connectivity was the key challenge facing East Lancashire towns and said a new Pennine authority would press for stronger rail links between the area and big cities such as Manchester and Leeds.
He added that he was encouraged by the support shown for the unitary proposals from the area's four MPs, particularly Rossendale MP and 'Northern Powerhouse' minister Jake Berry.
"Jake Berry is a key player and my understanding is that he's quite receptive to the idea.
"We want to see Pennine/East Lancashire become a key player in the Northern Powerhouse. Connectivity is key to that. We want to see a local link-up to HS2 as well as the 'Northern Powerhouse rail link' from Liverpool to Hull.
"Taking back control of our highways will also allow us to make improvements to our highways rather than relying on budgets spread across the whole of the county. Decision-making on this and other huge areas such as social care and education will be made closer to home and not be dictated from Preston."
Although Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale are currently borough councils, Blackburn is already a unitary authority, causing some people to fear it would become the dominant partner.
However, Coun. Townsend said that the four areas would have to find a solution that 'decentralises decision-making'.
He added: "A big plus would would be our common spatial plans, such as to how to develop our areas in terms of housing and employment. We can tailor policies for our individual areas rather than the broad brush approach we see now with county."
Coun. Townsend also said that the move could see jobs, currently done in Preston, moving back to East Lancashire, but admitted some departments would go as part of 'efficiency' savings.
"Obviously the new unitary authority would not need four IT departments or four HR departments for instance but there is no doubt more services would come back under our control.
"Overall, though, our dream for a Pennine authority would be to retain our culture and heritage but also create a manufacturing hotbed that brings prosperity to East Lancashir, building on the digital hubs and foundations we have already laid.
"We want to create jobs and opportunities, through our schools and industry, so that our young people will stay here. UCLan establishing itself in Burnley has already given a real platform to raise aspirations for our young people."
The request is now to be considered by Communities Secretary James Brokenshire.