County councillors voted by a majority to ask that ministers only consider the proposal for a new council known as The Bay – which would see Lancaster tie-up with Barrow Borough Council and South Lakeland District Council – if they explore local authority reorganisation for the whole of Lancashire at the same time.
However, there appears to be no immediate prospect of that after the government last year declined to include Lancashire in the latest round of talks with areas where it wants to see councils streamlined as a precursor to striking devolution deals.
Cumbria did make that shortlist – and The Bay pitch is one of four to have been put forward by local authorities in that area for how the county should be governed in future and is the only one to encroach into administrative Lancashire.
At an extraordinary meeting of Lancashire County Council, called to formulate the authority’s official response to a consultation into the Cumbria proposals, members were presented with a report by officers – on which that submission will be based – that warned that The Bay proposal would limit Lancashire’s own options in any future devolution discussions should it be given the go-ahead “in isolation” first.
It cautioned that the move could result in a “sub-optimal outcome” for Lancashire, while the resolution by members also set out concerns that there had not yet been a full analysis of any “risk to vital services it might entail”, nor an assessment of “the detriment it might cause to people reliant on those services”.
The meeting also heard that Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner did not support the proposal, because it would “necessitate a change in the policing boundary”, the operational and financial implications of which had not been considered.
Lancaster City Council is one of 12 district authorities within Lancashire that deliver local services like planning, parks and waste collection, while County Hall takes responsibility for Lancashire-wide services including highways and social care.
In a passionate and at times testy debate, county councillors clashed over issues of identity, practicality and popularity that have been thrown up by the plans.
Lancaster South East representative Erica Lewis – who is also the Labour leader of Lancaster City Council – said that the three authorities that would make up The Bay represented a “real and genuine community”.
She also dismissed claims that the change would amount to “tak[ing] Lancaster out of Lancashire”.
“The short answer is you can’t – and we don’t plan to.
“The assumption made is that there is an option [of] a long-term status quo – there isn’t. In five years, it’s unlikely that administrative Lancashire will have the same boundaries as it does today.
“I would, however, expect us all to be part of ceremonial Lancashire, as Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen remain decades after they became independent [councils],” County Cllr Lewis said.
The current administrative boundaries of Lancashire were largely formed during a major overhaul of local government in 1974, but Blackpool and Blackburn also broke away to form so-called “unitary” authorities, like that now proposed for The Bay, in the late 1990s.
Ceremonial Lancashire refers to the traditional borders of the county which still encompass Barrow, Manchester and Liverpool – long after those places left Lancashire for local government purposes.
Lancaster East Labour county councillor Lizzi Colinge said that present-day problems that could be more effectively tackled at a more local level.
“The Bay area already delivers healthcare, which is very closely related [to social care], on the [same] footprint. Many of the challenges around social care are linked to [health],” County Cllr Collinge said.
She also appealed to her colleagues not to “punish the residents” of Lancaster for a concern highlighted in the county officers’ report that there had been “no detailed assessment” to evidence how or whether the proposals would “lead to improved services, either within the Bay or more broadly across Lancashire”.
The meeting heard that the eight-week timeframe – dictated by the government – in which to develop a business case had been insufficient to carry out individual service reviews, but that the former had been based on “expert analysis”.
However, in proposing a motion resolving that the county council should not support The Bay proposal, Conservative county councillor Alan Vincent said the only view members should be concerned with was that of the county’s own “highly-skilled officers”.
He also challenged Labour councillors to put forward their own plan for a way forward.
“All you’re doing is saying no to this particular proposal [to oppose The Bay], which is based upon a report which is scientific in its principles.
“But what are you saying yes to? We don’t know, because you haven’t tested the market. If you wanted to be credible, you’d have put up an amendment today that said [you] support the Bay proposal – and you haven’t,” County Cllr Vicnent said.
Other Conservative members also questioned the strength of support for The Bay option – even amongst Lancaster residents.
County Cllr Lewis had described local backing as “overwhelming” – based on the fact that 93 percent of 2,800 survey responses preferred The Bay proposal to other options, while an independent poll undertaken by Survation found that 60 percent of 1,100 people questioned expressed a preference for it.
However, Morecambe South county councillor Charlie Edwards said that the survey not representative and that the questions amounted to asking locals: “‘Do you like a Morecambe Bay authority?’ or ‘Do you really like a Morecambe Bay authority?’”
Alluding to County Cllr Collinge’s remarks, he added: “Don’t punish Lancaster residents with a scheme that was drawn up in eight weeks on the back of a fag packet.
“Will Lancaster still be part of Lancashire’s really exciting bid for the 2025 Capital of Culture? Can you even talk about us being the home of British culture without the hometown of Eric Morecambe or without The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster University, or, hopefully, the Eden Project North?”
Meanwhile, Heysham’s Andrew Gardiner outlined his concerns for Morecambe under The Bay proposals.
“In 1974, the people of Morecambe got sold down the river by joining with Lancaster.
“The Bay proposal is too small and if a unitary is too small, it won’t work. A unitary has to be bigger – [although] smaller than the county council – so it can be more effective, efficient and economical for the benefit of all the taxpayers and residents.
“Lancaster is the real city of Lancashire – you cannot take it out and divide it somewhere else, it stands proud,” County Cllr Gardiner declared.
The Green Party’s Gina Dowding, representing Lancaster Central, rubbished the idea that the proposed Bay area was too tiny to stand alone.
“We’ve got diseconomies of scale [at the moment] by having such huge county councils and the replication that happens [under] the two-tier system. We could save money by bringing services closer to where people live and we would get much better outcomes,” said County Cllr Dowding.
She said that the county authority should “keep schtum” if it did not feel that it could back The Bay proposal.
Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali predicted that a “carve up” of Lancashire County Council was on the horizon, but that any changes should be looked at across Lancashire, Cumbria and North Yorkshire, which has also been invited to submit reorganisation proposals.
His deputy, John Fillis, claimed that the current situation represented a failure of the Conservative-controlled county council to persuade the Tory government of the merits of its own proposal, submitted last autumn, to divide Lancashire into three unitary authorities. That would have seen Lancaster join with Wyre, Blackpool, Fylde and Ribble Valley to form a "North West Lancashire" council, while a new "Central Lancashire" authority would have covered Preston, Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire authorities and "East Pennine Lancashire" would have served Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle.
Warning that lingering resentment in the part of Pendle which still considers itself a Yorkshire area – nearly 50 years after it was removed from that county’s administrative boundaries – demonstrated the importance of local identity, County Cllr David Whipp said:
“Crossing boundaries and amending boundaries…does impact on people’s feelings and how they react to things.”
The county officers’ report stated: “The Lancaster voice should be heard as much in the context of it being part of Lancashire as it should in consideration of the proposed Bay authority.”
The county council resolved, by a majority of 42 votes to 36, that the only one of the four Cumbrian proposals that met the government’s own three tests of demonstrating a good deal of local support, being likely to improve local service delivery and being based on a credible geography was one for a Cumbria county-wide unitary. It concluded that The Bay option only fulfilled the geographical requirement.
In a statement issued after the meeting, County Cllr Lewis – speaking in her capacity as Lancaster City Council leader – said it was “absurd” to suggest that The Bay proposal did not enjoy local support.
She added: “People will see it for what it is – the Conservatives at County Hall fighting for survival and ignoring the views of Lancaster residents who are strongly supportive of The Bay, as demonstrated by independent polling.
“It is unfortunate that Lancashire wasn’t invited to bring forward reorganisation proposals at the same time as Cumbria. Being able to have this as a joined up conversation would have been better than the piecemeal approach dictated by the government.
“It is unsurprising to see that county councils want to defend their position. However, what that misses is the opportunity to reform local government to best serve our residents and our region.”
Last month, during a visit to Lancashire, the Prime Minsier declined, when asked by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, to commit to whether or when the county could expect a devolution deal.