Lancashire county deal: will the county's £5.6bn devolution bid give it as much power as Greater Manchester and Merseyside - or is it lacking in ambition?
Lancashire’s embryonic bid for devolution has cleared its first hurdle - but not before a crack appeared to emerge in the newly-heralded consensus between the county’s council leaders over the historically thorny issue.
It came during a debate in which Lancashire’s devolution aspirations were vaunted as being the biggest and boldest the nation had ever seen - and yet also decried for not being ambitious enough.
It is less than a fortnight since the politicians at the top of all 15 Lancashire local authorities declared that they were ready to take the first tentative steps on the road to securing a so-called “county deal” with the government.
The leaders agreed that they would ask their respective councils to approve a draft vision for a £5.6bn package encompassing schemes designed to improve skills, housing and transport – as well as boost the local economy and tackle climate change. If eventually signed up to by ministers, it would see additional cash pumped into the county, along with new powers to direct existing public spending that is not currently in Lancashire’s control.
However, the Labour opposition group on Lancashire County Council has now called for the opening gambit with the government to aim higher than the current outline proposal - a stance backed by Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown, who sits on both authorities.
His intervention during a debate at County Hall on Monday drew the ire of ruling Conservatives - and seemed to put a question mark over whether the draft devolution proposal in its current form will win the support of every authority whose leader has agreed to it.
The Tory deputy leader of the county council, Alan Vincent, said he would be “horrified if any [council] amended it in any way at all - even if they changed a comma”.
The original document - the result of discussions between the 15 leaders late last year - is currently being taken on a tour of town halls, during which it is hoped that councillors will give the green light to it being used as the basis for the development of a fully-formed pitch to the government. That approval would also authorise the leaders to continue talks amongst themselves before bringing any final proposal back to their councils for agreement.
However, the county Labour group put forward what it said was a "friendly amendment" which sought to specify that Lancashire should seek “similar powers, freedoms and resources” to those which have been devolved to its neighbours in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.
The Labour former leader of Lancaster City Council, Erica Lewis - who represents Lancaster South East at County Hall - told the meeting that she did not believe that the document agreed by the 15 leaders would pass “in all councils across the county” as it stood. She added that while it had a "large price tag, it doesn't have a large ask in terms of responsibilities and powers".
The Local Democracy Reporting Service approached all nine leaders of Labour-controlled councils in Lancashire on Monday afternoon to ask if they were intending to amend the proposal to be put to their own authorities in the coming days and weeks. Of the six who responded, five said that they would not be suggesting any changes to the document.
The sixth - Cllr Brown - said he was “minded” to attempt to amend it when Preston City Council considers the matter on Thursday, but added that he was open to a “pragmatic” alternative if it addressed his concerns. He also stressed that the Labour group on the city authority would collectively decide its position ahead of the gathering.
Conservative county council leader Phillippa Williamson had opened the meeting at County Hall by declaring her hope that devolution for Lancashire could see the county overtake Greater Manchester and become the largest economy in the North West.
She said that delays to the publication of the government’s vision for ‘levelling up’ actually gave Lancashire an opportunity to be at “the front of the queue” with a proposal for a deal when a white paper on the issue is finally published, now expected to be next month.
“As leaders, we recognise that this is not the time to sit back and wait for others - nor should we miss the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits for Lancashire in the white paper.
“We want the powers, we want the flexibility and we want the investment to make significant decisions for ourselves about our future.
“This deal would more than triple the funding currently aligned to local decision-making. This would be the largest devolution deal to date - and we should not be embarrassed about that, we should get behind the ambition of this deal,” County Cllr Williamson said.
Fellow Conservatives queued up to extol the virtues of a proposed devolution settlement which has been sought in one form or another by Lancashire for seven years - but which has often been derailed by council leaders failing to agree amongst themselves over related issues such as the creation of an elected mayor and the streamlining of the county's local authorities. Both of those devolution pre-requisites now appear to have been cast aside by ministers.
Cabinet member for highways and transport Charlie Edwards said that Lancashire's new proposal would pave the way for a strategic transport investment plan that would “improve the connectivity between communities, making it easier to get to school or work - and [tackle] the longstanding issues we all recognise”.
Citing a wishlist of rail and road projects, he sent a message to the government which he said Lancashire should utter with a single voice: “Not piecemeal funding. Not waiting for the next round of whatever framework to bid or dip into - no more mañana mañana.
“Give us the power to decide our future. Fund it - fully - and we will deliver it.
However, it was on transport - and also health - that Labour county councillors claimed that the draft document was lacking.
County Cllr Brown told the meeting: “The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has negotiated that the bus network will be franchised back under public control - why aren't we aspiring to that? [In the] Liverpool City Region…they decide themselves…how they run their own train network.”
Lancaster East representative Lizzi Collinge said that health should have been “front and centre” in the plan in order to make Lancashire “the best place to be born in, to grow up in and to age in” - but claimed that it had only got a brief mention.
She acknowledged some “really good things” in the proposal, such as a link between climate change and economic prosperity, but also asked: “Is…our ambition for our children, how do we make them economically productive? Not how can we ensure that they get the best education possible [or that] they get the most out of school - not even how can we make sure that their physical and mental health is the best it possibly can be?”
However, cabinet member for health and wellbeing Michael Green said that it would have been “wrong to have placed health in something of a silo”.
“Rather, health cuts right across all the agendas [in the proposal]. Tackling priorities that are currently included in the devolution scope around early years...housing quality, employment, skills and infrastructure will all serve to address some of the wider determinants of poor health which we see across the county,” County Cllr Green said.
The draft plan outlines four themes that make up what has been termed the “New Deal for a Greater Lancashire” which will set out the immediate priorities for the county to pursue under any devolution proposal.
Cabinet member for children and families Cosima Towneley said that better housing, skills and education lead to "better…life chances for each and every family and, by default, each and every child.
Her cabinet colleague, Aidy Riggott - responsible for economic development and growth - invited county councillors to “just think we will achieve” if Lancashire were to secure funding and powers which would enable the county to "support our towns and help them stay relevant and exciting places to visit, or to maximise the huge opportunities that exist in cyber or energy or low carbon”.
However, Labour group leader Azhar Ali called for the outline plan to be taken back to all 15 council leaders because, he said, it was in need of “beefing up”.
“This is a starting point, but it is not what should [be proposed] to government. It needs tinkering with, it needs…to be more ambitious and it needs to be more aspirational.
“The people of Lancashire won’t be fooled by PR [or] Twitter and Facebook posts and empty promises - they want real change and that will happen if [County Cllr Williamson] commits to taking it back to the leaders and trying to recognise the gaps in here that need to be filled,” County Cllr Ali said.
His deputy, Lorraine Beavers, told the meeting that Lancashire had been “left behind while this government’s focus has been redirected to the big cities”.
“This document just isn't ambitious enough. Where is the dream for Lancashire, where [are] the aspirations for Lancashire, where is the plan to tackle health inequalities?” she asked.
Former Lancashire County Council Labour leader Jennifer Mein added that it was "pathetic" for its devolution proposal to "lag so far behind" what Greater Manchester and Liverpool have already attained.
However the call for a rethink was not supported by other county opposition groups. Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth said that while he did not disagree with the content of Labour’s amendment, he was “bemused” that it should be put forward at this point in the proceedings.
“Are we going to end up with 15 documents where nobody is agreed on anything, [yet] you all signed it off in a leaders’ meeting? Because that, to me, just makes a nonsense of the whole process,” he said.
Green Party group leader Gina Dowding expressed similar reluctance to unpick the initial foundation for further discussions, but added: “As it is written at the moment, [this document does not go] nearly far enough for the transformation that is needed to make our economy, our homes [and] our transport system first for the twenty-first century and to deal with the climate emergency.”
County Cllr Vincent implored members to reject the “negativity” of the Labour amendment and said that for any of Lancashire’s councils to deviate from the thrashed-out agreement between the 15 leaders would be “a breach of trust”.
“We passed something which we believed every single one of them would put [forward] with a recommendation to their councils [for approval] and get through their councils - and if they don't, then shame on them,” he said.
County Cllr Williamson said she could not “in all integrity” support the proposed changes to the original motion.
“We might all have worded some of the proposals in this document differently, but we set that aside and came up with a formulation that we all agreed [on]. We realised that it wasn't about individuals [or] individual areas, it was about uniting as…one voice and showing that we could do that in the best interests of the county.”
She added: “This is just the beginning [and] it’s a very ambitious start. If we secure this prize, it will be massively significant for the county and the region for years to come.”
The Labour amendment was defeated, with most of the group then supporting the draft plan on the table, allowing it to pass with 65 votes in favour, four abstentions - including County Cllr Brown. County Cllr Collinge was the lone member to vote against.
WHAT WILL LABOUR’S DISTRICTS DO?
The draft devolution plan will now be put to the other 14 councils in Lancashire - many of them this week.
Five out of Labour’s nine district and unitary council leaders confirmed to the Local Democracy Reporting Service that they would do so without tabling an amendment to mirror that proposed by the party at county level.
Hyndburn Council leader Miles Parkinson said: “The 15 council leaders sat down [together] and consensus came. I have no plans to change anything.
“If we didn't have consensus [during the earlier discussions], individual councils might have walked away,” he said.
South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster said that he was not planning to propose any changes to the “agreed recommendations”, while Blackburn with Darwen Council leader Mohammed Khan said that it was important to “work together for the people of Lancashire”.
However, Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown defended his position in supporting the county amendment - and the fact that he was considering a similar move at his own authority when it meets on Thursday.
“The understanding was that this was an initial starting point and there would be further opportunity to feed stuff in - and I don't personally feel I've been listened to in terms of what I thought should be in the initial draft.
“We have only been negotiating this for a couple of months - and the lack of opportunity to have a policy input has been disappointing.
“But I'm quite shocked by how the Conservatives [at County Hall reacted to] what I thought was quite a friendly amendment. It was pretty much saying [to] keep everything the same, but to make sure [the deal] is as good as what happens in Greater Manchester and Merseyside.
“My intention behind this is not to be difficult - but in terms of the inequalities that we have, which were exposed during the pandemic, we have got to have something that is substantial. The [proposed] investment is very welcome as are some of our other asks around investment and skills. But we can't just be in a dynamic of ‘take it or leave it’ - we have got to be more adult in terms of how we deal with it,” Cllr Brown said.
He explained that his group at the city council had yet to decide whether to proceed with its own amendment, adding: “If there is another way we can [get] the reassurances we need, then fine.”