'No confidence' vote in county leader over shake-up proposal that could see Burnley Council scrapped
Burnley Council says it has “lost confidence” in the leader of Lancashire County Council in his role as chair of a group designed to encourage co-operation between the 15 local authorities in the region – after he put forward a plan for them all to be abolished.
The district was responding to a move by County Cllr Geoff Driver earlier this week to suggest a radical shake-up of local government in Lancashire, as part of fast-moving negotiations over attempts to secure a devolution deal for the county. The proposal would result in the creation of three new standalone authorities.
It was backed at a private meeting of the ruling Conservative group on the county council and would see Burnley bound together with Blackburn with Darwen, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle in a new “unitary” authority covering the east of the county.
At an extraordinary meeting of Burnley’s full council, members expressed concern over County Cllr Driver’s ability to chair the Lancashire Leaders group and to speak on behalf of the whole county on the subject of devolution.
They also called on county councillors in the area to vote to block any proposal made at County Hall to reorganise the region’s councils in advance of publication of a government white paper on devolution in September.
The Tory-backed proposal being made by County Cllr Driver would need to be approved at a meeting of all Lancashire County Council members before a formal business case could be pitched to the government. However, County Cllr did not require any such approval to write to ministers outlining his plans, something which he has now done – and which will trigger another extraordinary meeting at Burnley to discuss the development.
Burnley Council leader Charlie Briggs said that he was “disappointed” that the Conservative group at County Hall had started a process that conflicted with the existing position of the district authority.
“As we’ve stated, we believe the best course of action is to wait until further clarity is provided by the government on future devolution options.
“We want to be clear that any decisions regarding the establishment of three unitary authorities in place of the 15 Lancashire councils will take a very long time and should the government proceed to the next stage, there would be a period of consultation – implementation could take years.
“Such announcements can be unsettling and sometimes lack clarity, but I want to reassure everyone in Burnley that we will always fight for the interests of our residents and businesses and ensure their needs are at the heart of everything we do,” Cllr Briggs said.
Labour group leader Mark Townsend – speaking before the vote at Burnley, but after County Cllr Driver had made his reorganisation plans public – had already concluded that the county leader should step down as chair of the Lancashire leaders group.
“If he can’t get consensus for his plan across the Lancashire leaders, then he should let somebody else step in to that role. When he is speaking to government, he is not speaking on behalf of Lancashire leaders.
“After what he has done, I think his time is up – he needs to let somebody who can build consensus step into his shoes,” Cllr Townsend added.
Responding to the statement that Burnley Council had lost confidence in him, County Cllr Driver said that he had similarly lost confidence in the district council leaders.
“I have already declared that, for the foreseeable future, I have no intention of attending any meetings with them – so the question of my chairmanship of the Lancashire leaders group is an irrelevance,” he said.
The last meeting of the group ended in acrimony earlier this month, when County Cllr Driver told his district colleagues: ” “You could all stand outside in the pouring rain – and you would take all day to decide whether you were getting equally wet or if some of you had more shelter than others.”
Four of them left the remote meeting at that point and it was later abandoned.
The government has stated that it expects two-tier council areas like Lancashire to move to a unitary system of standalone councils, far fewer in number, before it will consider offering the county a long-sought after devolution deal which would bring more powers and cash to the region.
Burnley Council also voted to call on the town’s MP to oppose any future government proposal that would result in the scrapping of the authority as a pre-condition for such a deal, which would bring with it an elected mayor and a new combined authority.