Lancashire devolution explained: what is it, what does it mean for the county and how will it work?
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What is devolution?
Devolution is the transfer of powers and responsibilities, historically held by central government, to local areas or nations - giving the people and politicians in those places more control over decisions that will affect them.
It comes in several different forms, with some areas having a deeper and broader devolution arrangement than others - meaning they enjoy both stronger powers and power over more issues. Places with devolved powers also get extra funding to exercise them.
Which parts of the UK have been given devolution?
The most obvious examples are the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have each had devolution since the late 1990s. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies were set up to discharge the new duties they were each handed from Westminster.
In the 2000s, there was talk of setting up elected assemblies for all the regions of England, including the North West. However, the plans never got off the ground after the one proposed for the North East was voted down in a referendum.
For the last decade, devolution in England has been focussed on more local areas, with the government doing so-called “devolution deals” with places including Greater Manchester. There are currently 13 such deals in place.
So why hasn’t Lancashire had devolution yet?
That’s a long story - eight years long, to be precise.
For a start, Lancashire is made up of 15 individual councils and since they began to work towards securing a devolution deal back in 2015, they have often disagreed on the shape it should take. Some districts - including Fylde, Wyre and Ribble Valley - even walked away from the process altogether during its early stages.
The search for consensus has not been helped by the fact that the government has, at various times, made devolution deals contingent upon - or at least strongly linked to - the two things that are most likely to cause a row between Lancashire’s leaders: the creation of an elected mayor and a reduction in the number of councils operating in the county.
Why doesn’t Lancashire want an elected mayor?
The prospect of an elected mayor - like Greater Manchester has in Andy Burnham - has always been a divisive issue for Lancashire’s local politicians. But it has long been the route to getting the strongest type of devolution deal on offer from the government.
Disagreements between leaders over the merits of a mayor dogged the first five years of the county’s devolution attempts, with some seeing it as undermining local democracy and others regarding it as the only way of making devolution work effectively.
However, in 2020, Lancashire’s leaders finally came to an agreement on the subject - which was to have a mayor with “limited powers”. Ultimately, that carefully-crafted suggestion - which indicated an ongoing reticence in some corners of the county - never came to pass.
Moreover, the disunity that had been on display in Lancashire about the issue - and the delays it caused - arguably continued to damage the county’s prospects of a deal even after a tentative agreement between leaders had been reached.
And the other unmentionable subject?
That’ll be “local government reorganisation” - in other words, redrawing the council map in Lancashire so that the whole county is covered by just a handful of local authorities rather than the 15 that currently rule the roost.
Central government enthusiasm for such shake-ups in so-called two-tier areas like Lancashire - those made up of a county council, district authorities like Preston and standalone councils such as Blackpool - was born out of the desire to ensure that the structures set up to oversee any devolved powers did not become unwieldy as a result of having too many competing voices around the table.
Back in 2020, the seeming requirement for reorganisation prompted proposals from Lancashire County Council and Central Lancashire’s district authorities that would have seen all 15 existing councils scrapped and replaced with three new ones, broadly covering Central, North Western and Pennine Lancashire.
As with the issue of a mayor, political opinion was divided - and some of the suggested configurations were even contradictory - showing that Lancashire was once again nowhere near doing a deal with itself about devolution, let alone the government.
Has Lancashire been losing out by not having devolution?
That’s always been the fear - especially because neighbouring areas like Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region have had their own devolution deals in place for at least as long as Lancashire has been seeking one for itself, allowing them to maximise their advantage over the county and attract investment that might otherwise have come to Lancashire.
A recent independent report commissioned to assess the potential impact of devolution in Lancashire estimated that the county’s economy was £1bn a year worse off for not yet having a deal.
Not only do devolved areas get more control over their own destiny and receive government funding that would otherwise be spent by Whitehall, they are also increasingly getting preferential access to other pots of funding - especially when it comes to transport.
In 2021, the likes of Greater Manchetser and the Liverpool City Region secured shares of a £7bn transport improvement fund from the Treasury, but Lancashire was locked out of the largesse.
Just this month, when the government announced how it would be spending the money saved by cancelling the northern leg of HS2, just six areas across the North, all of which have devolution deals in place, were given access to a £4bn pot. However, Lancashire was one of 14 localities that will share £2.5bn.
So what has changed lately?
Put simply, the harsh and growing realisation that the longer Lancashire does not have a devolution deal, the more it is at risk of being left behind.
For that reason, a renewed push down the devolution path was launched in January 2022, when all 15 councils agreed the first detailed blueprint for devolution in the county - but now once again minus an elected mayor - which floated the idea of a staggering £5.6bn transfer of funding to the county’s control.
Leaders laid out a bold bid for powers and cash in areas including transport, housing, economic growth, climate change and skills. In doing so, they were seizing upon a commitment by the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for shire areas like Lancashire to be able to seek their own bespoke “county deals”, seemingly stripped of the prerequisites in which past devolution offers had been wrapped.
In November last year, the 15 councils built upon their new-found unity by launching the so-called “Lancashire 2050” vision - the county’s plan to address the challenges and harness the opportunities it faces in key areas like those highlighted in its devolution blueprint.
Launched on Lancashire Day 2022 - at an event hosted by Commons Speaker and Chorley MP Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Houses of Parliament - the document has been widely credited with turbocharging the county’s devolution hopes, after it had earlier in the year failed to feature on the government’s list of the next areas in line for a deal.
So, no more stumbling blocks?
That’s how it seemed at the time, notwithstanding the fact that Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown wanted to see a more ambitious proposal than the one Lancashire had put on the table and Burnley Council expressed concerns about accountability under the new devolved governance structure that would be put in place.
Hopes were nevertheless high for a deal, because the agreement Lancashire’s leaders had reached about what they wanted to get out of devolution also came, crucially, with a plan for the arrangements by which any new powers and cash would be overseen.
The sensitive issues of votes and vetoes - which, in previous years, had been almost as incendiary as those of an elected mayor and slashing the total number of councils - would be addressed by the formation of a joint committee.
On that body, each of the 15 councils was to have an equal vote - with a two thirds majority required to approve any proposal - and the power of a veto on the biggest decisions that would affect their area.
It sounds like that didn’t survive contact with reality?
You could say that. The government's Levelling Up White Paper - its own blueprint for how it sees the future of devolution - required the kind of mayor-free deal being pursued by Lancashire to be based on the creation of a combined county authority (CCA), which would discharge the powers handed over under devolution.
Unfortunately for Lancashire, the CCA structure was at odds with the joint committee it had previously proposed. Only top-tier local authorities - in Lancashire’s case, those being Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council - are permitted to sit on a CCA.
It emerged in May this year, that that trio were pursuing a deal with the government on that very basis - news that was greeted with varying degrees of suppressed and overt anger amongst some district leaders, amid claims that they were being frozen out, not only of the discussions to strike a deal, but also the operation of any powers that eventually flowed from it.
So how would it work?
The three top-tier authorities would sit as full, voting members of the CCA. However, Lancashire County Council leader Phillippa Wiiliamson has committed to ensuring that the districts still have “a voice” in the new devolution arrangements.
The LDRS understands that that could be achieved by giving two district council representatives associate member status on the CCA, alongside figures from academia and business. Under the government’s rules, such members do not automatically have voting rights, but it is understood that these could be instituted for some or all of the associates if unanimously backed by the full members.
Would all of Lancashire’s councils continue to exist?
Yes, under the deal that now looks to be in its final stages, no councils would be abolished and they would all continue to operate as they do currently.
What would Lancashire get out of the deal?
The "level 2" deal being pursued by Lancashire entitles it to control over some local transport functions, including the ability to introduce bus franchising; control of adult education functions and budgets; the acquisition of Homes England compulsory purchase powers; and a more defined role in local resilience to strengthen public health and safety.
Had the county accepted an elected mayor, it would have been in line for the highest "level 3" deal, which would also have included more powers over affordable housing and influence over local rail services. Under that arrangement, a more traditional type of combined authority would have been established - on which all 15 councils would have been members, not just the top-tier authorities.
And things now seem to be moving quite quickly?
At lighting speed compared to the past eight years. The government outlined a commitment to drawing up a deal with Lancashire back in July and the latest developments suggest that the talks that have taken place with the three top-tier authorities since then have been as positive as the county as ever had over the issue.
This week, newly-appointed Levelling Up minister Jacob Young told the Commons that he hoped to be able to announce a deal ahead of Lancashire Day on 27th November, a public commitment which the LDRS understands took the county council and Blackpool, and Blackburn leaders by pleasant surprise.
So, what’s next?
It is understood that the text of a deal has to be approved by every government department which could be affected by the proposed new arrangement.
A public consultation will then take place, lasting between six and eight weeks, and likely concluding early next year. The final deal would then need to be ratified by the three top-tier councils.
So is it safe to say that devolution for Lancashire is happening at last?
Eight years of trying suggests that nothing about a devolution deal for Lancashire can ever be considered certain until all sides have signed on the dotted line. But what was once a perennially distant prospect now seems like it is finally not just within sight - but also within reach.