Preston's political leaders want abolition of the county council on which they all now sit
The leaders of all three political groups on Preston City Council now have a place on Lancashire County Council, following the local election results.
Labour city leader Matthew Brown and Sue Whittam, who heads the Conservative opposition group at the town hall, will now join Lib Dem group leader John Potter who already sits at County Hall.
And in spite of their political differences, the trio have common cause not only in standing up for the city at a Lancashire level – but also in seeking the abolition of the county authority to which two of them have only just been elected.
They all want to see the current two-tier arrangements, which mean responsibilities are split between the city and county council, come to an end.
The move to create a standalone authority for Preston and the wider Central Lancashire area appeared to have gathered unstoppable momentum last year, when it was proposed by the county council itself and Preston City Council as part of an attempt to secure a Lancashire devolution deal from the government.
Ministers will demand a simplification of the local authority map before they hand the county extra powers and cash, along with the likely requirement to form a Lancashire-wide combined authority, whose membership would be drawn from local councils.
Speaking after her election to County Hall, Cllr Sue Whittam said that she hoped to be able to “push that agenda forward” as part of the ruling Conservative Party at the county council,
“That’s probably what all [the city group leaders] are thinking – and the only way to influence it is to be on the inside rather than the outside,” she said.
Lib Dem city group leader John Potter agreed, saying that while Preston has been well-represented by prominent figures in recent county administrations, it feels like the move to a so-called unitary authority is “the way things are going”.
At a Lancashire Post debate just before the election, he said Preston would have a greater say in a solo council where “there aren’t two different officers from two different organisations, with two different political parties running it – it’s one council, speaking with one voice [to get] the best for Preston”.
Labour city leader Matthew Brown shares the desire for a local authority revamp – but warns that disagreements within Lancashire over what form it should take mean that the government will have to show “flexibility” over the size of any new councils. Ministers are currently insisting that they must service populations of between 300,000 and 600,000 – causing some Lancashire authorities to balk at the idea of being swallowed up by much bigger bodies.
“My personal view is that the size of council that they have in Greater Manchester – of about 250,000-300,000 would be more sensible. But the reality is we have to do something, because we’re falling behind the likes of Manchester and Merseyside.”
While both the city and county councils last year suggested to the government a four-way standalone council for Central Lancashire, to cover the areas currently represented by the Preston, South Ribble, Chorley and West Lancashire authorities, the latter three districts proposed their own tie-up, which excluded Preston.
Neither suggestion has yet been progressed by ministers, after Lancashire failed to feature on the latest list of areas with which the government would seek to agree devolution deals.
Cllr Brown added that, whatever the changes to come, he will be using his new place at County Hall to seek greater support for Preston from the county council in the meantime.
“I think they need to see if they can invest more in Preston directly – because under the previous Tory administration, they chose not to invest in our Youth Zone. We have got our cinema and restaurant development – potentially the county council could be a partner with us, if they chose to do so – and also in our community bank.”