Lancashire devolution: county councillors back deal but is it a good one or a dud?
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If members of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils - the other two top-tier authorities involved in drawing up the blueprint - follow County Hall in giving it the nod in the coming days, then a two-month public consultation will be launched at the end of the week.
Lancashire County Council unanimously backed the provisional deal at a special meeting on Monday - but only after a more than two-hour debate, during which opposition parties bemoaned what they see as its deficiencies.
Even the consultation period itself proved a point of contention, with the Labour opposition group calling for it to be doubled in length if a 30 percent response rate had not been achieved by the end of January.
The party’s John Fillis said that it would be “criminal” to rush the proceedings surrounding something so significant - and warned against waving through a deal if only a few dozen people had had their say.
“If the people of Lancashire don't respond to this consultation, where’s it gone wrong? If this is such a good deal [and] it is important…then why not give them a proper chance to have [a] say in their future?” County Cllr Fillis asked.
However Conservative deputy county council leader Alan Vincent accused Labour of delaying tactics, which, he said, because of the parliamentary timetable, could end up pushing a deal back “years”. Comparing the proposed response threshold to turnouts in by-elections, he added: "I think that your chances of getting 30 percent - and you know it - are zero.”
County Hall leader Phillippa Williamson said that it was not the number but the “quality…and range” of responses that mattered in making the consultation meaningful - not only from residents, but also businesses and the education sector.
Labour’s proposed lock on the consultation was voted down, paving the way for a full-throated debate about the merits of deal on offer.
The ‘level 2’ package - one of three categories of devolution available from the government - will see Lancashire gain control of the adult education budget for the county, acquire some new transport and compulsory purchase order powers - and get £20m for investment in growth projects linked to cyber defence and low-carbon energy.
Labour group leader Azhar Ali said that the cash “sweetener” showed a “shocking” lack of commitment to Lancashire – and amounted to a “dud deal”.
“Had it been £250m...[given] the size of the county, that would have been more interesting. We’ve got massive transport infrastructure problems - the Poulton-to-Fleetwood [rail] link, nothing [in the deal], Skelmersdale train station…nothing, the Colne-to-Skipton line…nothing, Coppull train station, Midge Hall [station] and the list goes on.
“We need an elected mayor and a tier 3 deal, because that brings us the most powers and resources. We can’t compete, [with Manchester and Merseyside] we’re not on a level playing field. We’re not in the fast lane, we haven't even got out of the pit lane,” County Cllr Ali said.
He added that while he did not favour the mayoral model, it was necessary to accept it as the “condition” upon which the government insisted for the deepest devolution deals. Level 3 agreements can include influence over local rail services, additional strategic housing powers and an investment fund with a guaranteed annual allocation.
However, County Cllr Williamson said that Labour knew “full well there is no consensus - and hasn't been for years - [over] any idea of a mayor, not even indeed amongst [their own party]”. She insisted that she and her Labour counterparts in Blackpool and Blackburn had secured “a great deal” for the county.
County Cllr Vincent was one of several Tories to highlight the different stance taken by Labour councils across Lancashire over devolution - with Labour-run Blackpool and Blackburn having helped negotiate the agreement, but the county group and several districts either rubbishing or actively opposing it.
“Which Labour Party is it we talking to?” he asked.
Labour’s Nikki Hennessy said that she wanted the consultation documents to provide a comparison to devolution agreements elsewhere in the country so that residents could see that “this is what [the likes of] Liverpool were offered...and this is what they have given to poor old Lancashire - because it's disgusting”.
The gold standard offer for mayor-led devolution was traditionally £30m every year for 30 years. However, Conservative county councillor Andrew Gardiner said that it was “not always about money", but the benefits that can flow from the “cohesion of interlinking and working together” across multiple sectors, especially education.
Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth conceded that the deal was “a start” - but nothing more. He blasted the lack of bus regulation powers, which, whilst they can be requested under a separate process as part of the deal, do not come automatically.
“We’re still going to have the ridiculous position where the private bus companies can pick and chose the profitable routes that they want to run and our council taxpayers are going to have to subsidise non-profitable routes into rural areas - when if we had complete control of our transport, we could be running those [profit-making] bus services so that we can cross-subsidise and improve our complete transport links,” County Cllr Howarth said.
Meanwhile, Green Party group leader Gina Dowding said that it was “disingenuous” of the Conservatives to argue that while there would not be a mayor under the deal, there nevertheless would be a “single point of contact” for the government in Lancashire.
“Therein lies the dilemma, because basically there is going to be a de facto leadership of this [county] combined authority [which will be created to oversee the devolved powers], with just four or six people and very little recognition of the range…complexity and the diversity of the councils across Lancashire,” County Cllr Dowding said.
She was one of several contributors to the debate who channelled disquiet amongst many district council leaders about the fact that only two of them would sit on the new body to represent the interest of all dozen of the second-tier authorities - and that they would not have a vote.
One of those leaders, Preston City Council’s Matthew Brown - who is also a county councillor - accused the Tories of rejecting a mayor out of self-interest.
“You are more concerned about your own careers…because you don't want to have a Labour mayor…like they have in Greater Manchester and Merseyside,” he said.
However, cabinet members lined up to extol what they said were the virtues of the deal, with Aidy Riggott, the portfolio holder for economic development and growth, saying that it gave Lancashire “the tools” needed to draw investment into the county, raise its “profile” and “match the ambitions” of residents and businesses.
Children and families cabinet member Cosima Towneley added that the agreement provided “an opportunity to shape the lives of not only the next, but future generations of Lancastrians - and how can we look that future in the face if we do not endorse the proposal here before us?”
County Cllr Williamson said that she was disappointed by “the negativity” that the opposition had shown towards the deal, which had come together in the space of six months after seven years of aborted attempts.
She accused them of “talking down the opportunity that this deal genuinely brings to Lancashire”, which an independent report concluded could be worth £1bn a year in investment into the county compared to the status quo.