Lancashire 'losing out' over devolution delay as county's deputy leader pushes for deal
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That was the warning from Lancashire County Council’s deputy leader, Alan Vincent, as he called for the region’s local authorities to form a new committee as a vehicle for securing one of the “county deals” which the Prime Minister has said could be offered to places like Lancashire.
Back in July, Boris Johnson announced that he would be ditching the “one-size-fits-all template” that had underpinned devolution arrangements down the years for the likes of Greater Manchester – a message which was widely interpreted as the government no longer demanding an elected mayor in return for extra powers and cash.
That stipulation has long been a sticking point for several district authorities in Lancashire and, although the county’s 15 council leaders agreed – in principle – for the first time last year to explore the concept of a mayor with limited powers and the formation of a combined authority, the removal of those requirements would almost certainly make it easier for Lancashire’s councils to present a unified front to the government.
The new bespoke devolution arrangements touted by the Prime Minister also seemed to jettison an equally controversial government demand for two-tier council areas like Lancashire to simplify their local government structures before being handed devolved powers.
County Cllr Vincent told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that, against that backdrop, now was the time for Lancashire to move to secure the freedoms and additional finance that it has been trying to win for more than five years.
Welcoming the Levelling Up Fund announcements in this week’s budget for Burnley and Colne, he added: “It’s increasingly clear that we can no longer afford to keep missing out on the funding opportunities provided by having a combined authority – we are surrounded by areas that already have, or are about to have, that status.
“Now that the government will allow us to have it, too – without having to accept an elected mayor or local government reform – we cannot let our people down by not working together, under the leadership of the county council, to open the door to millions of pounds worth of grants and investment from the government.
“We are under no illusions and realise the next two or three years will be difficult, so we must help ourselves to help our area by accepting every penny we can get from government – and that means forming a joint co-operative committee of those councils in Lancashire who know that it’s a vital tool in the Lancashire local government box,” County Cllr Vincent said.
Earlier this month, the government told Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region - both areas with elected mayors - that they would receive £1.07bn and £710m respectively for transport projects. However, Lancashire will get nothing from an overall transport pot which totals £7bn and is being split amongst mayoral regions across the country.
County Cllr Vincent said that the proposed committee would be a “combined authority in all but name” – but without the strings that have tied Lancashire in knots for so long.
It was the requirement for local government reorganisation that caused the most disquiet amongst Lancashire’s leaders during a flurry of activity last summer which saw several authorities make sometimes competing submissions to the government about how to redraw the complicated council map in the county.
The county council proposed the abolition of itself and every other local authority in Lancashire and for them to be replaced with three standalone – or unitary – councils serving the areas currently covered by Preston, Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire; Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre, Lancaster and Ribble Valley; and Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Rossendale and Pendle.
Preston City Council put forward the same four-way solution for Central Lancashire, but was left out of a submission by Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire councils which sought to create a single authority without their city neighbour.
Meanwhile, Ribble Valley remained hostile to the idea of any kind of reorganisation and Burnley and Pendle wanted more detail on the government’s policy intentions before committing to a position.
In spite of the county deals announcement this summer, that detail is, arguably, yet to materialise – with the government now saying that a long-awaited white paper on Levelling Up, which will include its devolution blueprint, will appear before the year is out.
Ultimately, Lancashire's moves towards reorganisation last year came to nothing after the government did not include the county in its next batch of areas to consider for local government restructuring.