'Give Ribble Valley a vote on its future': call for a referendum before council can be axed
Any move to abolish Ribble Valley Borough Council must first be backed by residents in a referendum, the authority’s councillors have said.
Members made the unanimous demand at a meeting held just hours after it emerged that Lancashire County Council was preparing to pitch a proposal to the government that would see every local authority in the county – including itself – scrapped and replaced with three new ones.
Under the plan, Ribble Valley would be bound together with Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre and Lancaster to form a standalone or “unitary” authority. County Hall is now drawing up an outline business case to support the idea - which could be sent to ministers for their consideration as soon as September - as a forerunner to discussions on a devolution deal.
The extraordinary meeting at Ribble Valley – called before the details of the plan emerged – concluded that Lancashire should wait until the publication of a long-anticipated government white paper on devolution in September before making any decisions on the subject.
Crucially, they also said that any changes must be able to demonstrate “a good deal of community support following a local referendum” – something which is not required under current legislation. In doing so, Ribble Valley became the first council in Lancashire to make the call for a public vote on the issue.
Council leader Stephen Atkinson told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he would want a county-wide poll on the issue – and that the status quo would have to be on the ballot.
“This has to be a decision for the people – they pay their council tax and it’s the biggest household bill, so it should be down to them.
“We shouldn’t be wasting any effort on this until we have consulted the people in a referendum and we can’t do that until we know what the options are in the white paper.
“A key principle of the standards in public life is objectivity. How can you be objective on the future of local government by submitting a plan when you don’t know what the options are going to be?" he asked
The County Hall proposal is part of long-running attempts to strike a devolution deal for Lancashire, which would lead to the creation of a separate combined authority - with local councils as its members - and an elected mayor.
The government has recently made it clear that it wants a reduction in the 15 councils in Lancashire and an end to the two-tier system operating in much of the county, which sees responsibility for services split between the county council and district authorities like Ribble Valley.
Ribble Valley’s Liberal Democrat opposition group leader Allan Knox said that a referendum on local government reorganisation in Lancashire should learn the lessons of the Scottish independence and Brexit polls.
“You need a large amount of buy-in from people to prove that it’s something that they really want. So I don’t think it should be based on a simple majority.
“I’d like it to be a two thirds majority of the overall vote across the county, with a requirement for a greater than 50 percent share within each district,” Cllr Knox said.
He added that he believed local services would be badly affected if Ribble Valley Council were axed.
“Continuity will be lost, all in the name of bigger being better – when very often it’s not. Small authorities can adapt and react more quickly to things like flooding and also Covid-19.”
A majority of county councillors would have to back to the proposed changes before a formal submission could be made to Whitehall.
However, the individual authorities affected by any shake-up would not have to give their consent. Under a convoluted arrangement, each of the 15 councils is free to ask the government to be invited to put forward its own proposal for ministers to consider.
If the overtures to the government – either from the county council or any other Lancashire authority – have the desired effect, and Whitehall considers that it is in meaningful discussions over reshaping the local authority landscape in Lancashire, it is likely that next year’s county elections will be cancelled.
It is believed that ministers would like to see any new unitary councils in place by May 2022, when elections to the freshly-created authorities would take place. That would mean extending the four-year term of the current crop of county councillors for a further 12 months.
Lancashire County Council’s Conservative leader Geoff Driver has previously told the LDRS that the county would have to accept the requirements for an elected mayor and council reorganisation if it wanted to be part of the ”levelling up agenda” to rebalance the economy, as promoted by the Prime Minister following last year’s general election
In response to the plan to create a trio of new councils in Lancashire, County Cllr Driver said: “For far too long Lancashire has missed out on the benefits of devolution because of internal squabbles about how our structures are organised. It’s time to set aside petty politicking and break that logjam.
“These bold and ambitious proposals represent a once-in-a-generation change that will transform Lancashire and benefit everyone who lives in this great county.”
However, opposition leaders at County Hall have condemned the timing of the reorganisation proposal.
Labour group leader Azhar Ali said that Lancashire was being “sold down the river”.
“I would have thought that this was the time for all councillors to work together to lobby government for more money, after over half a billion pounds of cuts to the county over the last ten years – and not a reorganisation where you end up putting money into sacking people without actually knowing what you’re going to get in return from devolution.
“Last week, Transport for the North received £600m of funding – and not a penny of it came to Lancashire.
“I’m shocked that while the country is in a crisis, the only thing the Lancashire Conservatives can think about is reorganising the deckchairs on the Titanic to save their own jobs,” County Cllr Ali added.
At a full council meeting earlier this month, the Labour group said that it would reluctantly support a combined authority and elected mayor as part of efforts to secure a devolution deal.
However, the Liberal Democrats at County Hall are opposed to both reorganisation and the proposed new mayor.
Group leader David Whipp said it was “not the right thing and not the right time”.
“It is beyond belief that while we are dealing with a public health emergency, the people who ought to be working their socks off to help keep people alive are instead staring at their naval.
“Energy and effort will now be diverted into these endless discussions, which will only end up with local residents losing control. Power must be available at the most local level, so that people are able to influence decisions – to lose that would be a tragedy,” County Cllr Whipp warned.
Meanwhile, a senior Conservative figure in Lancashire said that the proposed changes risked starting a “bloody civil war” within the party at a local level.
The LDRS understands that members of the ruling Conservative group at Lancashire County Council backed the suggested shake-up by a majority at a private meeting of their number held over the weekend.
It is believed that there were fears Lancashire could lose out if wrangling over reorganisation caused any delay in putting forward the county’s pitch to government, with a slew of devolution discussions expected to begin across the North during the autumn.
A long-awaited government blueprint on the subject is due to be published during the first week of September. While some Lancashire leaders would prefer to keep their powder dry until they see the contents of the document, the jockeying for position – and influence – has already begun.
County Hall’s chief executive, Angie Ridgwell, is understood to be fleshing out the detail of the case for a three-way split, with the aim of it being ready in advance of the white paper’s release.
Meanwhile, the monthly meeting of Lancashire leaders – at which matters such as this would usually be discussed – has been cancelled in August. As the LDRS revealed last week, the last gathering of the 15 leaders ended in acrimony, with four of them walking out of the virtual session before the discussion was abandoned.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government declined to confirm that Lancashire County Council’s planned elections could be cancelled next year, in the event of progress on a reorganisation plan.
A spokesperson said: “We have set out a clear commitment to level up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster.
“We are considering a range of options and will set out our detailed plans in the white paper that will be published this autumn.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR JOBS?
At this early stage, there are no details on the impact of any new local government structure in Lancashire on the number of local authority jobs in the region.
However, the union UNISON said that it was “keeping a close eye on developments” over reorganisation.
North West Regional Organiser James Rupa said the organisation would “expect to be consulted in a meaningful way regarding any changes”.
“Public service workers have kept the country running during this pandemic and they deserve to have a say over a significant upheaval which could lead to job losses.”
“The biggest issue facing local authorities in 2020 is under-funding. Our councils are under huge financial pressure and a costly re-organisation may exacerbate existing problems. However local government is structured, the key to Lancashire’s economic recovery lies in properly resourced public services.”
HOW IT WORKS NOW
The standalone councils in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen are responsible for all local authority services delivered in their areas.
Lancashire County Council delivers major services such as social care, schools and highways in the rest of the region. The county is then divided into twelve district councils which look after areas such as leisure, parks and waste collection and also make most planning decisions.
On government insistence, the two-tier system would be replaced by a so-called ‘unitary’ model as part of any reorganisation. That would see the creation of new single-tier councils covering wider areas than the current district and standalone authorities.
The councils in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen already operate on that model and are responsible for all local authority services delivered in their areas.
£844m – Lancashire County Council’s annual budget
84 – number of Lancashire county councillors
£160m – combined annual budget of Lancashire’s 12 district councils
560+ – number of district councillors
1889 – the year Lancashire County Council was formed
1974 – the year the district councils in their current form were created
1998 – the year Blackpool and Blackburn formed their own standalone councils