'Hands off Ribble Valley': campaign to keep the borough's identity intact gathers momentum
A petition telling Blackburn to “back off” the Ribble Valley has attracted almost 5,000 signatures.
The demand came after details emerged last week of an ‘in-principle’ agreement for the formation of a combined authority for Lancashire as part of a devolution deal with the government.
The embryonic proposal – supported by the leaders of all 15 councils in the county – came with an acknowledgement that the process could require reorganisation of the existing local government structure.
Emma Dickinson-Gater, who launched the petition, said she was worried that the move could reignite plans previously pushed by Blackburn with Darwen Council for the creation of a standalone authority for the whole of East Lancashire – including Ribble Valley.
“We’re a rural area and we need our rural council which understands the issues we face – things like farming and flash-flooding; basically, how to deal with a valley.
“If there was any merger or takeover, I’m sure our services would be cut. We also don’t want any more housing developments, because the valley can’t tolerate it.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I love this area – and we’re not up for being split or amalgamated. I’d hate to see Longridge go one way towards Preston and Clitheroe another towards Blackburn.
“To be fair, I do like Blackburn, too – but I’d rather keep it where it is,” added the Mellor resident.
One in ten of the voting population of the Ribble Valley area has signed the petition in the space of five days.
Cllr Ged Mirfin, part of the ruling Conservative group on Ribble Valley Borough Council, said that the statistic showed the strength of feeling about the issue – and suggested that politicians at all levels had learned little from the Brexit vote.
“Identity is now at the very core of political debate. Local identity politics is even more important when critical decisions like weekly bin collections and not charging additionally for green waste affect people’s lives in a personal way.
“A significant distrust of politicians and institutions has grown up in this country, fuelled by a sense among large numbers of the general public that they no longer have a voice in the national and, in this case, the local conversation.
“At the end of the day, the general public don’t like things being done to them and when they do raise their voices, what they say comes as a rude awakening to some of our political elites,” Cllr Mirfin warned.
Ribble Valley Borough Council leader Stephen Atkinson added that he would be doing his “best to protect the independence of Ribble Valley, until the residents tell me different”.
Cross-party support for the anti-merger campaign came from the borough’s Liberal Democrat opposition.
Deputy group leader Mark French said that “giving up our independence over issues which matter solely to the Ribble Valley would not be of any benefit”.
“It would mean giving up control over decisions on planning, finances and community support. A lot of the other councils in East Lancashire have much larger towns than we do and we are also very rural, whereas they aren’t.”
However, veteran politician and Longridge businessman David Coulston said he believed a council shake-up was inevitable under plans for a combined authority. The 83-year-old former county councillor said that the only question for his town was where it wanted to end up – and he says that the answer should be obvious.
“All the lines of communication are with Preston. Most of the development which affects this area is being decided over the border in the Preston City Council area.
“Longridge should have gone in with Preston during the major local government reorganisation in the 1970s, but people thought we’d be gobbled up and so looked in the opposite direction towards Clitheroe.
“Ribble Valley is a great council, but I just feel that its days are numbered. The most natural change would be to create five unitary councils across the county, along with a new Lancashire mayor,” added Mr. Coulston, a three-time mayor of Longridge.
But former Ribble Valley Borough Council leader Ken Hind claims that locals in all corners of Ribble Valley are far from relaxed about any redrawing of the local government map – and want co-operation across council borders, not domination.
“The great thing about this petition is that it’s come from the grassroots – it’s not been started by politicians.
“The message we need to get over is that dismantling or abolishing Ribble Valley Borough Council is not up for negotiation. We need to lobby our MPs and government to argue forcefully for its retention.
“[Any] super-sized authority will mean Ribble Valley being run from Blackburn – and there will be a democratic deficit,” he warned.
Blackburn with Darwen Council leader Mohammed Khan said in response to the petition that there was "no intention" of a takeover of Ribble Valley.
Last year, he said of proposals for an East Lancashire standalone council: “We can see the bigger picture about Pennine Lancashire when a lot of others can’t.
“Blackburn with Darwen is looking beyond itself to improve the quality of life for people.”