Crumbs or cream? Lancashire launches pre-election devolution push amid claims deal plan lacks ambition and a voice for the districts
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The trio will now try to hit a September deadline to complete the work needed to establish - in shadow form - the body that would oversee any extra powers and cash that are ultimately sent Lancashire’s way. It is thought that if the target date is missed, the chances of a pre-election agreement being reached would be significantly diminished.
County Hall leader Phillippa Williamson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the three councils and the government had concluded that the fasttrack timeframe was “doable” following Wednesday's summit.
She also warned that research showed “standing still” and sticking with the status quo was costing the Lancashire economy between £900m and £1bn a year in missed growth opportunities.
However, the suddenly sped-up process appears to have exacerbated disquiet amongst some of the county’s 12 district councils about the fact that government rules prohibit any of them from being full members of the proposed new devolved organisation - known as a “combined county authority” (CCA).
The LDRS understands that a testy meeting of all 15 Lancashire leaders, just 24 hours after the civil servant gathering, even saw an attempt to pass a motion of no confidence in County Cllr Williamson as chair of the group as a result of her pursuit of the CCA option - but the vote was not permitted.
Unlike the litany of previous disagreements between the county’s councils that has littered the eight-year history of Lancashire’s attempts to secure a devolution deal, it is understood that the latest spat has split the dozen districts straight down party lines - with the four Tory-led boroughs believed to be supportive of the move and the eight Labour-controlled authorities opposed to it to varying degrees.
Only two district leaders have so far opted to comment following the behind-closed doors meeting, one of whom - South Ribble Borough Council’s Paul Foster - decried what he described as the “undemocratic” plan to form a CCA, which he also claimed was denying Lancashire the gold-standard devolution deal of a traditional combined authority with an elected mayor at its helm.
However, speaking to the LDRS before the leaders’ meeting - but after the conference with half a dozen government officials - the leaders of the three so-called “top-tier” authorities that would sit on the new CCA stressed the need to press on and get a deal done.
“Time is ticking on - and the more we prevaricate, the more we are disadvantaging the county as a whole, “ County Cllr Williamson said.
“As leaders, it's incumbent on us to actually do the best for the county - and sometimes you have to be slightly pragmatic about how you go about these things.
“We need to do something very quickly to make up that gap [with areas that already have devolved powers] and get us to the place…that we want to be.”
The Conservative politician added that she was “always optimistic” that the concerns of some districts - which the LDRS revealed after the CCA proposition was first put forward last month - could be addressed as the finer detail of the arrangements was thrashed out.
“I think some of it is an initial reaction,” County Cllr Williamson added, pointing out that it was the government that had set the parameters stipulating that the CCA must be an “upper-tier beast”.
Blackpool Council’s Labour leader Lynn Williams added that there was a feeling that Lancashire had “waited long enough” for the devolution that has been enjoyed by Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region for the best part of a decade.
“We simply have to get on with this, because that's in the best interests of the people of Lancashire. In Blackpool, [it's important that] we don't continue to miss opportunities and we start this journey to make progress [on]...all the really positive stuff that we want to do,” said Cllr Williams, who - along with her county and Blackburn counterparts - welcomed the government mandarins on their visit to Preston before leaving them to their discussions with council officers.
The prospect of devolution coming with what some Lancashire leaders regarded as the strings of an elected mayor - and possibly a contentious restructure of local government in the county, which would slash the number of councils to just three - has long prevented a consensus being reached amongst Lancashire’s local authorities.
That changed in January 2022, when the 15 leaders agreed a blueprint for devolution based on the more flexible approach announced by the government the previous year in an attempt to entice counties like Lancashire to take up the opportunity.
The resultant prospectus included an ambitious £5.6bn package encompassing policy areas such as transport, skills and housing - comprising both new money and, in the main, local control over cash pots currently administered by government departments.
It also mooted the creation of a joint committee to deploy the newly devolved powers, sitting alongside the existing local authority structure and giving an equal say to all 15 councils. The organisation was to operate under a one-member-one-vote system, requiring a two thirds majority for any decisions to be made - with each authority also wielding a veto over proposals deemed particularly to affect their patch.
However, less than a month after Lancashire’s proposal saw the light of day, the government published its own devolution framework, which made it clear that its promised flexibility was not boundless. While two out of the three devo deal options came minus the mayor that has proved so problematic for Lancashire, they yielded more modest powers as a result - and also depended on the exact governance arrangements chosen.
The joint committee structure would entitle an area only to the most basic “level 1” deal, while the creation of a combined county authority would elevate it to “level 2” and allow - amongst other things - for the control of some local transport functions and the acquisition of compulsory purchase powers currently held by government agency Homes England.
However, Cllr Foster says that none of the 15 councils has ever approved a CCA set-up - meaning that County Hall has no mandate to lead the charge for it.
“We agreed [as] Lancashire leaders that it was to be a one-member-one vote, all-inclusive [institution] for all authorities. That is what every council then [ratified], so County Cllr Williamson hasn't even got the authority of Lancashire County Council to do this - she's working way outside the terms of reference that were agreed,” Cllr Foster said.
Referring to the often troubled relationship between the districts and County Cllr Williamson’s predecessor at County Hall, he added: “When Geoff Driver was leading the county council, he at least told you that he was going to turn you over [before] he did.”
In spite of his ire at the idea of a CCA, Cllr Foster is not advocating dropping down a level in devolution ambition, but rather reaching for the kind of top-grade “level 3” deal seen in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region - and for which the government would demand an Andy Burnham-style mayor. Crucially, though, such an arrangement would also lead to the creation of a more traditional combined authority which would permit districts as full members.
“Why don't we go and ask our residents [whether] they want the best possible devolution deal with an elected mayor, [which would] bring billions of pounds worth of investment into the county?” asked Cllr Foster.
“Why would we agree to crumbs when, if we just do this properly, we can have cream?”
Meanwhile, Lancaster City Council leader Phillip Black said that the co-operative approach taken to devolution by Lancashire’s local authorities was now under threat.
“There is now pressure on Lancashire County Council [from] the government to get an ‘upper-tier-only’ deal done, which is not a model which had been previously envisioned. It is understandable that the three upper-tier authorities are willing to agree to these arrangements to secure the extra funding that they will bring.
“However, the consequence of doing so may be the acceptance of a less ambitious devolution deal, with limited scope in terms of devolved powers and - when considered in a county-wide, multi-year context - a potentially modest budget.
“Regrettably, a dozen councils like ours are now frozen out of the decision making and can’t join negotiations with the government on behalf of our residents.
“I will continue to meet with my counterparts from across Lancashire and hope that our collective voice is loud enough to sway the county council into returning to a more co-operative and inclusive approach. Together, we could be partners in securing the best possible devolution arrangements, with broader powers and enough funding to bring meaningful and lasting change for the lives of people across the county,” Cllr Black said.
However, Blackburn with Darwen Council leader Phil Riley, told the LDRS that with a general election looming on the horizon sometime within the next 18 months, there was good reason to ramp up efforts to secure a deal before the nation goes to the polls.
“We are in a better position with a new government - whoever they are - if we're on a journey [than] if we are standing at the back of a queue, waving our hands and saying, ‘Please come and talk to us,’” the Labour leader said.
“New governments always end up with large agendas [and] things change. If we're in the [devolution] process, then we have a better chance of being listened to.
“It just offers huge opportunities - and it's the only game in town. If we don't go down this route, then we have no other route to go down [and] we are attempting to remotely manage a group of people in Westminster on our behalf - and it's much more powerful if it works the other way.”
Speaking to the LDRS earlier this year, national Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested that he would offer Lancashire a devolution deal that was not “conditional” on any particular structures being in place first - although he did not say what might follow in the wake of an agreement.
Cllr Williams said that even if Lancashire’s first devolution stop-off is at level 2 - “an excellent starting point” - that does not preclude it from stepping up to a superior deal in future.
District councils can be made non-constituent or associate members of a CCA, but they would not have a vote unless handed one by the constituent members from the top-tier authorities. It is also unclear whether the government would tolerate that status being conferred on all of a county’s districts.
While County Cllr Williamson has previously committed to lower-tier authorities having a voice in any new devolved arrangements - and has noted their integral role in drafting the "Lancashire 2050" document setting out the challenges and opportunities facing the county - she told that the LDRS that it was important that other interests, including those of business, education and the NHS, were also represented.
If Lancashire succeeds in establishing a shadow CCA, it will not be the first time that a devolved governance structure has been set up in embryonic form in the county. A shadow combined authority was created when the county began its journey towards devolution back in 2015.
However, with the process stalling amidst local disagreements, the organisation was dissolved less than three years later, to be replaced by the Lancashire Leaders group, which continues to this day as a forum to bring together the senior political figures from each local authority.
WHAT DOES LANCASHIRE WANT?
Lancashire County Council leader Phillippa Williamson says that the region’s devolution ambitions must include a focus on equipping its residents with the skills to “take advantage of the opportunities that economic development” will bring.
“[We have] all these fantastic businesses and we've got [the National] Cyber Force coming into the county [at Samlesbury], so we need to make sure that at every stage in people's people's working life - basically [from] school onwards - that those skills are working for business,” County Cllr Williamson explained.
She added that her ultimate aim was to ensure that the benefits of devolution come to touch all Lancashire residents - and hopes that people are starting to feel “some difference” within the next two years.
For Blackburn leader Phil Riley, the potential to make devolution work for the priorities of different parts of the county is a powerful draw.
“On behalf of East Lancashire, housing is an issue. In Blackburn, something like 60 percent of the housing is pre-1919 terraces - some of it good, but lots of it not,” said Cllr Riley, adding that Blackpool faces similar challenges with its housing stock.
WHAT CAN LANCASHIRE HAVE?
Level 2 deal - some of the powers available under the combined county authority option currently being pursued
***Control of "appropriate local transport functions", including ability to introduce bus franchising.
***Control of adult education functions and budget.
***Acquisition of Homes England compulsory purchase powers.
***Defined role in local resilience to strengthen public health and safety.
Level 3 deal - some of the additional powers that could be available if Lancashire had an elected mayor
***Influence over local rail services and stations.
***Consolidation of existing budget for road maintenance and small upgrades into a multi-year settlement.
***Strategic partnerships with Homes England for affordable housing and brownfield site funding - plus, ability to create a Mayoral Development Corporation.
***Ability to introduce a mayoral charge on council tax and supplement on business rates.
Source: Levelling Up White Paper