Central Lancashire leaders offer solutions to devolution deadlock

The leaders of Central Lancashire’s district councils say that local authorities across the county need to get back around the table after May’s elections to find a way of securing a devolution deal.

Friday, 26th March 2021, 6:21 pm
Updated Monday, 29th March 2021, 2:34 am

The trio have also told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that an associated government demand to redraw the council map should not be allowed to derail the process. However, each of them has offered slightly different solutions to what has become a seemingly solid barrier to coming to an agreement with ministers.

Meanwhile, another district leader says the public must be given a say before any reorganisation of the region’s councils.

It comes after the Prime Minister was non-committal on the prospect of Lancashire devolution when asked about it by the LDRS during a visit to the county earlier this week.

(Clockwise from left) Alistair Bradley, leader of Chorley Council, Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, Paul Foster, leader of South Ribble Borough Council
(Clockwise from left) Alistair Bradley, leader of Chorley Council, Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, Paul Foster, leader of South Ribble Borough Council

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Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley says the way that the 15 authorities in Lancashire have co-operated during the pandemic shows what is possible – and should be allowed to evolve over time before any formal changes are made to council structures.

“We have proved through Covid that we can work together in a crisis – now we need to demonstrate that we can do that, coherently, in normal times as well.

“We’ve done it for the last 12 months, so why can’t we do it for the next 12 years?

“Reorganisation may be something that comes out of that process. But if you reorganise before trying to work more closely together, then that’s putting the cart before the horse.

“We haven’t been precious about structures for the past year, so we should work together for a while and prove what the best structures are – that’s what I’ll be advocating if I’m still in this position after May.

“But the government needs to commit to doing whatever Lancashire thinks is best about the footprints on which we deliver services, as well as to fund us properly – we are all agreed on that,” Cllr Bradley added.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said that while devolution would not be a panacea to the challenges Lancashire faces after the pandemic, it would be “pretty embarrassing” if the county ended up as one of the few parts of the North of England without a deal.

He believes that the government should offer more flexibility in its demand for the creation of standalone – so-called “unitary” – authorities that would sweep away the split between county and district councils. Currently, ministers are suggesting that the ideal population size for new, single-tier councils is between 300,000 and 600,000.

“Some districts might prefer to form smaller unitaries than those proposed by the government, others slightly larger,” Cllr Brown said.

“Obviously, there still needs to be some rationale in terms of economic and travel links between the areas, but that can be sorted out – I think we just need to overcome having closed minds to these things sometimes.

“I think the benefits of devolution are sometimes overplayed, but there is no doubt that the likes of Andy Burnham [the Greater Manchester metro mayor] have put their areas on the map.

“It would be very difficult for us in Lancashire to do what he has done this week on regulating the buses, for instance.

“However, devolution does have to be meaningful – so if, in Preston, we wanted to trial a universal basic income, would the government allow it? Because if not, then it’s all a bit of a facade.”

South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster says that the way local councils have operated during the Covid crisis has reinforced his belief in their worth.

He is now calling for a devolution deal and the associated arrangements for a combined authority – but without any changes to local authorities at a district level, at least until the pandemic has passed.

“Now is not the time to be sidelined by discussions about local government reorganisation. We have a pandemic to deal with, the ramifications of which will take years to resolve.

“My position has not changed and has in fact been bolstered by the Covid response – borough councils have been essential in the community response and have worked wonderfully well together, whatever their political persuasion.

“We don’t need wholesale reorganisation and must keep our local councils in Lancashire. But we do need a combined authority and elected mayor – the sooner the better,” Cllr Foster said.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ribble Valley, which encompasses part of Longridge, borough council leader Stephen Atkinson – a staunch opponent of reorganisation – says nothing should be done without asking for the opinion of the county’s residents.

“No-one has formally consulted the people of Lancashire about this. The only place where anybody has been asked for their view is here in the Ribble Valley, where an independent petition calling for the council to remain as it is was signed by over 10,000 people.

“That is a greater number of people than vote in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections or the European elections when we used to have them.

“Council tax is the largest household bill, so people must be fully consulted before any changes are made – and I think those politicians in favour of reorganisation will be in for a shock when they do consult residents and find out what they really think,” said Cllr Atkinson, who stressed that he was still in favour of the creation of a combined authority and a mayor “with limited powers”.

Irrespective of the future structure of local government in Lancashire, councils – whatever their eventual number – would continue to deliver everyday services across the county.

The combined authority would be made up of those individual councils and would collectively discharge any county-wide powers devolved to it by the government over areas such as transport, strategic planning and economic regeneration.

The organisation would almost certainly have to be led by a directly-elected mayor before the government would enter into any agreement over its formation and the cash to fund it.