Any change to the way local government operates in Lancashire should be centred around the district authorities, according to two Central Lancashire councils.
Preston and Chorley councils were responding to a suggestion by Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver that the region could pioneer a shift in the way services are split between the two tiers of authority.
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He has written to the government to say that he will put forward an alternative to a proposal by Blackburn Council to spearhead a standalone “unitary” council covering the East of the county.
While County Cllr Driver said that his preference was for a unitary-style solution for the whole of Lancashire, he would not be drawn on whether the county should be served by one or more solo councils. However, he also indicated that the current system could be reformed rather than scrapped - by rethinking the roles of the different types of authority.
But Preston City Council has called for an overhaul which respects the “distinct economic regions of Lancashire”, while Chorley Council suggested that all non-strategic services should be run “at a local level”.
Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, said that he could not support any move towards a single council for the whole county, because it is “not the best option for residents”.
“We are also wary of the changes to the current structure loosely referenced by County Cllr Driver - but need more information and clarity to fully respond.
“Despite continued significant budget cuts, Preston City Council has proven itself as an agile, ambitious and able council that delivers quality services and prioritises its residents. Any new structure would need to address the very real funding issues that face all councils and truly benefit our communities.
“That said, we are keen to work with colleagues from across the county to discuss a more effective and efficient manifestation of local government – one more likely to meet the needs of our communities and businesses, reflecting the distinct economic regions of Lancashire.
“We would be looking for a solution that not only better serves and represents our residents, but also brings efficiencies to the area, encouraging and propelling the social and economic agenda we are working hard to deliver.
“We would welcome the opportunity to explore this with our neighbouring districts and consider a proposal for how best to move forward,” Cllr Brown added.
Meanwhile, Alistair Bradley, leader of Chorley Council, said that the current set-up “cannot continue”.
“We’ve been re-modelling our services with partners such as the police and health authorities and we are seeing the benefits of working at the more local level, which allows us to be more responsive to the needs of residents.
“Our view is that districts should be running services at a local level and that we should work together across the county on more strategic issues through a much more efficient organisation, such as a combined authority.
“From what County Cllr Driver has said, it’s an admission that the county council is finally lifting its head out of the sand and realising that things need to change.
“What he’s not saying – and I appreciate why – is that it requires a huge change that will get rid of the county council.
“Giving services over to districts without any funding is not the way to do it – what is needed is a fundamental overhaul of local government structures and I hope we’ll finally start to see that happen.
“Not only will this allow us to provide better services for residents it will mean that the taxpayers in Chorley get a better deal from the money they pay to the county council, which gets spent in other parts of the county,” Cllr Bradley concluded.
South Ribble Borough Council was approached for comment.
All of the above comments were provided before local authorities entered the pre-election purdah period which restricts their communications.
DEATH OF THE DISTRICTS?
Any proposals to change the local government landscape are now on hold until after the general election.
But back in September, the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick appeared to set the clock ticking over district authorities - like those covering Preston, Chorley and South Ribble - by stating that he did not feel as though two-tier local government had “a long-term future”.
However, speaking last week, the minister seemed to throw them a lifeline when he claimed that their forced abolition would “not [be] in the spirit of devolution”.
“I do see the merits of unitary authorities in order to make efficiencies and decisions on a more strategic and larger-scale canvas. But it is not my intention to impose that from above,” Mr. Jenrick told the Local Government Chronicle.