Lancashire leader hails Tier 3 funding deal - but some districts wanted to ambush the PM for more

The financial package secured by Lancashire to accompany its shift into Tier 3 Covid restrictions was “a really good deal – the best that the county could have got”.
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That was the verdict of Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver, who said that a week of negotiations with the government had resulted in the region being handed tens of millions of pounds more in cash support than is routinely on offer for areas with Tier 3 status.

The county will also have to close fewer businesses than might have been the case – with gyms and leisure centres remaining open, unlike in the Liverpool City Region, which was the first area to acquire a “very high” Covid alert level.

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Lancashire will receive an extra £30m over and above the standard £12m which it could have expected because of the size of its population.

County Cllr Geoff DriverCounty Cllr Geoff Driver
County Cllr Geoff Driver

That is still some way short of the additional £58m it was requesting – £5.2m of which was wanted on a recurring monthly basis.

The county was refused permission to retain £50m in unspent business support grants – out of more than £350m given to Lancashire councils at the start of the pandemic – which leaders had wanted to use to create a discretionary fund for businesses directly or indirectly affected by moving into Tier 3.

However, it is understood that some of the overall £42m package coming the county’s way will be used for that purpose.

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County Cllr Driver said: “It is as good a deal as was going – when you consider the starting point was [being told]: you are going into Tier 3, you’ll get £12m and all your pubs, bars, gyms, leisure centres and hairdressers will be shut.

“We moved away from that proposition significantly.

“A greater emphasis is going to be placed on local testing and tracing within Lancashire and we were told that more resources still could come with that – not necessarily in the form of pounds notes, but personnel.

“All of the money we have secured will go exactly where it’s needed,” the County Hall leader added.

A ministerial team has also been dedicated to helping tackle Covid in Lancashire and, while they will have some say in how the financial support package is spent, it is understood that local leaders will have the final word.

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Negotiations between Lancashire leaders and Downing Street officials over a Tier 3 deal spanned a full week – and stepped up late into Thursday night, before reconvening early on Friday morning.

While Lancashire’s 15 council chiefs initially formed a united front over their financial demands from the government, the consensus cracked in the final hours of talks.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that, in a bid for more money than was on the table, a small number of district leaders wanted to ambush the Prime Minister with a final pitch for an extra £5m.

With Boris Johnson waiting in the wings to address the virtual gathering of Lancashire’s leaders once a deal was done, it was suggested that the county should indicate that it had accepted the government’s final offer – before rowing back once the PM appeared on-screen and demanding the additional cash from him directly.

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Ultimately, however, the ploy was not put into practice and Mr. Johnson made a short statement before departing without taking any questions.

At a press conference following the deal with the government, County Cllr Driver said he would be “very surprised” if some of the money for Lancashire was not used to make more generous payments to some workers whose employers have to close while the county is in Tier 3.

The government has pledged to cover two thirds of their salary, but the county had initially pressed the government for an 80 percent rate, equal to the original national furlough scheme introduced back in March.

Several district leaders regarded the matter as a red line.

Preston City Council's Labour leader Matthew Brown called the final outcome of the negotiations "a disgrace" - saying an extra £8m per month would have been needed to create a localised 80 percent furlough scheme.

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His South Ribble counterpart said Lancashire had been "bullied and blackmailed" into accepting a deal.

The government had been pushing Lancashire to agree to Tier 3 for a week - today it got its wish, but for some local leaders, their agreement was grudging.