Labour would offer Lancashire a no-strings devolution deal minus a mayor upfront, as government also promises talks over powers this year
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The opposition leader has told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he wants to see the benefits of devolution brought to the county in the earliest days of any administration he forms after the next general election.
In response, the government has said that Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove will have “conversations” with Lancashire over devolution “later this year”.
Crucially, however, Sir Keir ruled out the need for specific governance structures - like an elected mayor and a new combined authority - to be in place before an agreement is reached. Both of those prospects have been perennial sticking points for Lancashire’s council leaders in their often tortuous attempts to agree amongst themselves the kind of devolved power they want to pursue.
In the seven years since the county’s senior politicians started their devolution discussions, the Conservative government has waxed and waned over whether a mayor and overarching new authority would be pre-conditions of doing a deal - but both now seem to be red lines at least for agreeing the most generous terms.
Yet as recently as the summer of 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson indicated that county areas like Lancashire could pitch their own bespoke plans to ministers for consideration - opening up the possibility that devolution could come without a powerful and high-profile elected mayor like Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.
That seeming flexibility last year led Lancashire’s leaders finally to agree to the basis of a devolution plan, in the form of an ambitious £5.6bn bid for more powers and cash, which the LDRS revealed last January.
However, just a month later, the government’s Levelling Up White Paper listed nine areas that were next in line for talks over a devolution deal - and Lancashire was not among them.
Asked by the LDRS whether he could give a clear commitment to Lancashire that, under a Starmer administration, there would be no more hoop-jumping for the county in its pursuit of devolved power, Sir Keir said: “I want resource, decision-making and power in Lancashire. Everybody wants to grow our economy, but I want to make sure there’s growth everywhere - that means living standards going up in Lancashire and the economy growing in Lancashire.
“Obviously, in the North West, Manchester and Liverpool are big pulls - but we've got to see growth in places in Lancashire as well.”
Pressed on the practicalities of that ambition and what demands Labour would make of the county in return for a devolution deal, Sir Keir added: “This is not conditional on there being a particular structure in place.
“We’ve got to move at speed [as an] incoming Labour government. We can spend five years creating new structures which wouldn't make a difference to Lancashire - and I want a difference [to be made] to Lancashire from day one of a Labour government.
“So whatever the final arrangements may be, we will work with what arrangements are in place now to make this work - we’re not saying the structure has got to come first.”
Azhar Ali, the Labour opposition group leader on Lancashire County Council, has previously likened local politicians unwilling to consider a radical overhaul of the way the county is governed to “turkeys not voting for Christmas”.
While he told the LDRS that Sir Keir was “right about devolution” and getting a deal done early for Lancashire, he also appeared to seize upon his national party leader’s hints that some kind of change in local governance might come further down the line.
“Lancashire needs a strong devo deal with an elected mayor and either a unitary county [single council for the whole of Lancashire] or viable unitaries [standalone councils for different parts of the county].
“Lancashire has been isolated by Conservative governments over the last 13 years. Tragically, Lancashire's Conservative MPs and council leaders have failed the people of Lancashire, [but] Labour will get things done,” County Cllr Ali said.
However, Tory county council leader Phillippa Williamson used exactly the same phrase as a characterisation of Lancashire’s own reputation - “a place where we 'get things done'” - to rubbish the suggestion that Conservative ministers were overlooking the county.
“This is illustrated by the confidence the government has shown in Lancashire, [such as] by naming Samlesbury as the preferred location for the National Cyber Force and delivering a package of £225 million [in] investment through Levelling Up Fund [rounds] 1 and 2 across Lancashire - including £50 million to support our [transport] ambitions in East Lancashire and £50 million towards the Eden Project [in] Morecambe,” County Cllr Williamson said.
While not commenting directly on Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge of a quick, no-strings devolution deal, she added: “We are continuing to work closely with government to identify and secure opportunities for Lancashire to grow and thrive.”
Lancashire was a big winner when the government announced the successful bidders in the second round of applications for a share of its Levelling Up Fund earlier this year. The county’s local authorities scooped just under 10 percent of the £2.1bn total that was handed out nationwide.
However, the county has also lost out on largesse from other government initiatives which have ultimately benefited only those areas where devolution deals have already been struck.
Just last month, the eight places granted Investment Zone status - designed to boost economic growth - all boasted either existing or proposed mayor-led combined authorities. Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council each submitted bids, but none was successful. Similarly, in 2021, the government announced £5.7bn of funding for almost 400 sustainable transport schemes - all of them in areas already with devolved powers.
Lancashire is now almost surrounded by localities where devolution is being put into practice - Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region and, most recently, North Yorkshire. Greater Manchester’s devolved orbit is to be extended even further, it was announced last month. There is also the potential for Cumbria to complete that encirclement if it pursues devolution in the wake of a recent shake-up of its councils.
Responding to Sir Keir Starmer’s comments, a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “The Levelling Up Secretary has been clear he wants to see a devolution deal for Lancashire and looks forward to having conversations later this year.
“Our devolution deals are putting more power and money in the hands of local leaders to deliver for local communities, with investment funding for areas committed to a mayor or directly elected leader to ensure maximum transparency and accountability.
“We are committed to spreading prosperity and opportunity across Lancashire, which has benefited from significant levelling up funding, including £50 million to create a world class tourist attraction, Eden Project North in Morecambe."
Mr. Gove first hinted that devolution talks would open with Lancashire in 2023 during this year’s Convention of the North event in Manchester in January.
However, the LDRS understands that the deepest devolution deals will be offered only to those areas who are willing to have them overseen by a single organisation - like a combined authority - with a directly elected mayor. The government still regards that arrangement as the strongest and most accountable form of leadership, which would be commensurate with the powers and cash it is willing to hand over to local areas.
In that scenario, Lancashire's leaders could have a difficult decision to make - whether to accept a diluted deal for the sake of continued unity between them or revisit what have previously been divisive discussions over the concept of an elected mayor.
They tentatively agreed, in principle, to a mayor “with limited powers” back in 2020. However, by the time the county coalesced around a blueprint for how to pursue devolution two years later, it had taken any commitment to the creation of the controversial role off the table.
It instead proposed a joint committee or statutory or non-statutory board - formed of all council leaders - with decisions taken by a two thirds majority and individual leaders having a veto, in certain circumstances, over proposals affecting their own area.
While any combined authority ultimately created in Lancashire would sit above the councils responsible for individual areas, it is likely that it would reopen a related can of worms about simplifying the county’s complex two-tier system of local government. The current set-up sees a division of responsibility between the county council and district councils in most areas, while standalone authorities operate in Blackpool and Blackburn.
Almost three years ago, a county council proposal to the government sought the abolition of all 15 of Lancashire’s councils - including itself - and their replacement with three single bodies broadly covering the central and southern, northern and western and eastern parts of the patch.
That was seen as a necessary step at the time to fulfil another of the government’s shifting criteria for devolution - the streamlining of existing local governance arrangements - but the response from district authorities to their own potential disappearance from the map ranged from relaxed to rancorous. One borough, Ribble Valley, even called for a local referendum before any such changes were made.
Disquiet over both an elected mayor and local government reorganisation has historically cut across the political divide in Lancashire, with Conservative and Labour-controlled authorities having been dubious about either or both prospects at various points over the past seven years.
WHAT DOES LANCASHIRE WANT?
In a bold bid for devolution set out at the start of last year, Lancashire revealed its intention to seek a £5.6bn deal from Whitehall - garnered from a combination of new money and gaining local control over spending currently in the gift of the government.
The proposed "New Deal for a Greater Lancashire" suggested the investment needed across four key areas - and how it would be spent - over the course of seven years:
Economic Growth and Investment
***Protect existing employment, drive up productivity and accelerate the commercialisation of low carbon technologies.
***Strengthen and diversify the economy to extend the existing pockets of UK-leading productivity in Lancashire to the county as a whole.
***Deliver growth through investment in town centres, unlocking strategic sites and focusing on jobs, skills, health innovations, clean energy and manufacturing, cyber, digital, and the visitor economy.
Proposed investment: £1.4bn
Transport, Connectivity and Infrastructure
***Improve both physical and digital connectivity in Lancashire to tackle some of the worst climate, health and socio-economic outcomes and provide employers with a larger pool of workers to draw from - integrating Lancashire’s divided economy into one.
***Improve transport links along the East-West corridor along which most people live in Lancashire - with a focus on travel by bus, electric heavy and light rail, cycling and walking
***Invest in full fibre broadband, unlocking major development and employment investment
Proposed investment: £1.05bn
Early Years, Education, Adult Skills and Employment
***Build a talent pipeline aligned with the needs of the economy, enhancing productivity, tackling climate change and opening up opportunities for career progression, higher wages and improved standards of living.
***Increase the focus on preparing children in the early years of life for school readiness as well as focusing on upskilling young people and adults and those in their working years.
***Address the fact that 23 percent of residents have either no qualifications or NVQ1 - and the "skills deficit" at NVQ Level 4 compared to the North West and UK averages.
Proposed investment: £1.8bn
Environment, Climate Change, and Housing Quality
***Promote locally-led energy solutions, such as decarbonising heating systems, improving energy efficiency and local renewable electricity generation to meet current and future growth needs.
***Intervene in areas of "chronic housing failure", including some urban centres where there are significant volumes of housing stock over 120 years old, to create better social outcomes and new jobs, skills and training in construction, as well as tackling climate change.
Proposed investment: £1.4bn
Source: Lancashire County Council, 2022