Lancashire businesses 'losing patience with politicians' over devolution dispute

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A Lancashire business leader has appealed to senior politicians to “build on” the devolution deal that the county has been offered by the government – and not write it off before it has even been implemented.

Frank McKenna, chief executive of Downtown in Business, says that he “cautiously” welcomes the agreement signed by the leaders of Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council late last month.

A former deputy Labour leader at County Hall, he has long pushed for devolution for Lancashire and says that while the ‘level 2’ deal is far from “the most exciting” example he has ever seen”, it at least sets Lancashire off on a “long journey” towards increased local powers and resources.

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However, that sentiment has not been shared by the eight Labour – or, in the case of Burnley, former Labour – leaders of Lancashire’s 12 district authorities.

Lancashire's devolution deal is almost done - but there are different opinions on it in council chambers across the countyLancashire's devolution deal is almost done - but there are different opinions on it in council chambers across the county
Lancashire's devolution deal is almost done - but there are different opinions on it in council chambers across the county

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service has previously revealed, they have written to the government calling for a pause and expressing dismay both at what they see as the thin contents of the deal and the fact that they will have only two representatives on the county combined authority that will be created to oversee the newly-devolved responsibilities – neither of whom will have voting rights.

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While Mr. Mckenna said that he has “some sympathy” with their concerns, he asks them to “reflect on whether they have been engaging in the devolution debate in good faith – or simply trying to erect barrier after barrier in the hope that the status quo would prevail”.

He appealed to them to take a “more pragmatic and less parochial approach”, adding: “I remember when the first Devo-Manc deal was announced in Greater Manchester. Leaders there were disappointed that what they got did not include any financial powers. Eight years later, that has now changed and Andy Burnham and his colleagues have added a range of powers to what was agreed [initially].

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“We have to start somewhere and this gives the county something to build on. Lancashire businesses are fed up watching investment for further education, skills, innovation zones, improved transport connectivity and business support programmes pour into Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.

“Lancashire can only hope to win that type of support if we embark on this new opportunity in a positive fashion. The first page of any devolution story is seldom as dynamic as places hope. But it is the next page, the next chapter, the story’s end that is important.

“Will our political leaders work with the business community to write a positive, progressive narrative to build on the introduction – or will they rip up the script before it has a chance to develop? The business community is watching – and our patience is wearing thin,” Mr. McKenna warned.

Lancashire’s level 2 agreement – which is currently the subject of public consultation and will need to pass through Parliament before it is finalised – has come after more than seven years of failed attempts to do a deal.

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One of the biggest stumbling blocks has been previous government requirements for an elected mayor to oversee any devolved powers – but that demand is now made only of those places that have the most extensive level 3 deals.

District disquiet over previous devolution pushes has come from both sides of the political divide, but it is currently Labour that seems the most displeased with what is on offer. The county council Labour group has expressed similar concerns to district leaders – but two of the signatories of the deal, Blackpool and Blackburn, are themselves Labour controlled.