Is Lancashire's devolution dream just delayed - or dead?
The leader of Lancashire County Council says he believes that the government has put a potential devolution deal for the area “on the back burner” - because of local wrangles over an associated requirement to reduce the number of local authorities in the county.
Geoff Driver made the comments after Boris Johnson was asked during a visit to Lancashire this week about the prospect of the county reaching the kind of agreement that has long since brought extra powers and cash to the likes of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.
Responding to the question from the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the Prime Minister said that Lancashire is “at the heart of [the government’s] campaign to drive jobs and growth in the UK” - but did not address devolution directly nor offer any timescales for it.
For the first time last summer, all 15 council leaders in the county concurrently agreed “in principle” to the creation of a combined authority and elected mayor - a pre-requisite of any devolution deal.
They also pledged to explore “possible models” to simplify Lancashire’s complex two-tier council structure, which currently sees local authority responsibilities split between the county and district councils in all areas except those covered by the standalone authorities in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.
The government has indicated that it would demand such a change so that any future combined authority would have a more manageable number of constituent members.
However, consensus over the need to consider reorganisation soon began to fracture when leaders were confronted with the reality of redrawing the local authority map in Lancashire - leading to competing proposals being put on the table and calls to decouple the process from moves towards devolution.
When the government announced which areas it would enter into discussions with as part of the next round of devolution talks, Lancashire was not on the list - prompting County Cllr Driver to warn that the region risked being left with “crumbs from the rich man’s table”.
Speaking after Mr. Johnson’s comments during a trip to Fylde, the County Hall leader - who is stepping down the at the local elections in May - said: “From what I can gather, devolution for Lancashire is on the back burner, because the government has ‘no appetite for getting involved in local disagreements’.
“It has been made very clear that they will not impose a solution from Westminster and will look to seek ‘general agreement’ - even if not unanimous - for a local solution.”
Lancashire County Council put forward a pitch to the government last September that would have led to the abolition of every local authority in the county and the creation of three new ones. The proposal was part of an outline business case for devolution that the authority claimed would enable Lancashire to speak with “one single, credible voice”.
The document suggested that local authority functions be delivered by single councils for "Central Lancashire" (based on the footprints of the existing Preston, Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire authorities), "North West Lancashire" (Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre, Lancaster and Ribble Valley councils) and "East Pennine Lancashire" (Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle councils).
The move sparked disquiet from several district councils which complained that they had not been consulted.
Details of the plan had first emerged earlier in the summer prompting a flurry of activity which saw Preston City Council submit its own proposal to the government based on the the same Central Lancashire option suggested by County Hall - only for South Ribble, Chorley and West Lancashire councils to make a bid to form a three-way council, without Preston, just 24 hours later.
Around the same time, Burnley Council resolved that reorganisation proposals should not be advanced until publication of a government white paper on devolution - which was expected last autumn but is not now due until later this year - while Pendle Council said that moves towards a combined authority and elected mayor should also be halted until the government's policy intentions were published.
Since then, Lancaster City Council has been pursuing a tie-up with South Lakeland District Council and Barrow Borough Council across the border in Cumbria - one of the three county areas that the government is currently considering for reorganisation as a forerunner to a devolution deal for that region. A public consultation on the proposal is running until 19th April.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been approached for comment.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands the department does not intend to impose a ‘top-down’ restructuring of Lancashire's councils, instead favouring a locally-led approach to produce proposals that can demonstrate strong local support. That means Lancashire's local authorities are likely to have to agree a solution amongst themselves before devolution will be offered to the county.
During his trip to the county, Boris Johnson cited the proposed introduction of a loop line to increase services on the South Fylde railway as an example of the government responding to “activism by people in Lancashire and [its] MPs” for the county’s benefit.