Lancashire leaders meeting ends in acrimony, as councils continue down difficult road to devolution

The spirit of co-operation between Lancashire’s councils over attempts to secure a devolution deal for the county has been dented after a meeting of the region’s local authority leaders ended in acrimony.

Wednesday, 22nd July 2020, 2:38 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd July 2020, 3:06 pm

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that a row broke out about a separate subject at a virtual gathering of Lancashire’s 15 council leaders last week – resulting in four of them making a premature departure from the discussion.

It is understood that the walk-out came after an ill-tempered exchange which ended with Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver telling his 12 district authority counterparts: “You could all stand outside in the pouring rain – and you would take all day to decide whether you were getting equally wet or if some of you had more shelter than others.”

Lancashire’s county, district and standalone councils are currently engaged in already delicate deliberations about devolution, with potential controversy ahead over the creation of a combined authority and elected mayor as part of the process.

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Can Lancashire's councils co-operate - and will some of them eventually combine?

That concept has historically proved a stumbling block during four years of devolution discussions in Lancashire and it has now been complicated further by a government demand for a shake-up of the county’s complicated council structure, which could see some or all of Lancashire’s existing local authorities wiped from the map.

Perhaps more significant than last week’s row is the fact that a tentative agreement between the leaders over how to proceed on the devolution front appears at risk of unravelling. The 15 made an “in principle” commitment to pursuing a combined authority and elected mayor, subject to the approval of each of their council’s members.

The leaders also agreed to seek advice from the Local Government Association (LGA) on possible options for redrawing council boundaries in Lancashire – and so reducing the number of local authorities in the county.

However, Pendle Council has since voted not to support the mayoral move at the moment due to a lack of “clarity”, while Burnley Council has come out against any attempt at local government reorganisation “as a condition” of devolution.

Meanwhile, the LDRS understands that the LGA has declined the invitation to assist in coming up with a new council map in Lancashire, because of the degree of disharmony over the issue between the existing authorities.

Whatever the next steps on Lancashire’s long road to devolution, the relationship between its 15 leaders is likely to be crucial – and last week’s meeting suggests that a schism has opened up between County Hall and at least some of the district councils.

It is understood that the districts objected to their logos being included on a document submitted to the government last month laying out a post-Covid economic recovery plan for Lancashire and making a pitch for government investment in £62.5m worth of so-called “shovel-ready” projects.

Several of the leaders told the meeting that they had not been consulted over its contents – and went on to criticise the county council for seeming to imply that that they had given tacit approval to the proposal. They were advised that their level of involvement had been dictated by the short timescales involved in drawing up the document.

The LDRS understands that County Cllr Driver suggested that the districts needed to think more strategically about the whole county rather than just any benefits to their own areas. However, after he made his “outside in the rain” comment, an apology was demanded – and when it was not offered, the leaders of South Ribble, Chorley, Ribble Valley and West Lancashire councils left the meeting, which was abandoned shortly afterwards.

County Cllr Driver did not dispute the account, but said that the outcome of the discussion was “very disappointing”.

“It illustrates the difficulty we have of working together as a group of local authorities, because too many leaders have their own agenda. We all need to reflect on how we’re going to move forward for the benefit of the people of Lancashire.

“I didn’t start the acrimony in the meeting – insults were thrown at the county council and at me personally – so I’m not prepared to apologise. But my analogy with standing out in the rain perfectly sums up exactly why we have a problem,” the Conservative leader said.

South Ribble’s Labour leader Paul Foster said that he was not prepared to “sit in a meeting while people get insulted”.

He added: “Nobody puts South Ribble’s endorsement to any document without our approval. That’s a very basic consideration and I’m very disappointed with the county council – I have no idea why they would do that.

“County Cllr Driver has got a challenging job and I genuinely wish him the best in trying to deal with [these issues], but I just wish that he wouldn’t be so provocative and would try to work more with the district leaders. I think it would be good now to take a breath and think about how we can all work together.”

West Lancashire Council leader Ian Moran said that he had not even seen the recovery document before it was sent to the government bearing his authority’s crest.

“We sit just as an associate member on the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and yet we were more included in their [post-Covid] strategy than the one for Lancashire. We want Lancashire to start working for us,” he said.

Lancaster City Council leader Erica Lewis - who is also a county councillor for Lancaster South East - told a meeting at County Hall 24 hours after the bust-up: "If you want to play a leadership role in a combined authority, then you’re gong to have to work with others and if you want to play a leadership role in economic development, you’ll need to realise that the county council cannot do it alone.

"We must deliver environmental, economic and social justice - or your time is over."

The leaders of Ribble Valley and Chorley councils were approached for comment about the row.

HOW COULD THE COUNTY BE CARVED UP?

Any attempt to redraw the local authority map in Lancashire would be likely to prove a controversial enough process in itself. By pegging it to the already thorny issue of devolution and the creation of an elected mayor and combined authority, the government has handed the county’s leaders a conundrum that they will need all their political nous and interpersonal diplomacy to solve.

Earlier this year, Whitehall civil servants told a meeting of Lancashire’s leaders that the government would demand a “simplification” of the county’s convoluted local government cartography, which sees services divided between the county and the 12 district councils in most of the region, while Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen operate as standalone authorities.

Theoretically, that could have resulted just in a reduction in the number of districts, but the continuation of the current so-called “two-tier” system.

If any district leaders were holding on to that hope, it was snatched away from them last week when regional growth minister Simon Clarke said that the government would demand the creation of “unitary councils” – like those in Blackpool and Blackburn – as the price for any devolution deal.

That could see all of Lancashire’s 15 local authorities swept away in their current form.

Civil servants have previously suggested that any newly-created council areas should cover populations of no less than 300,000 people. However, the government has also said that it would not approve any proposal which led to an increase in the number of children’s services departments in an area in order to prevent their fragmentation.

Lancashire currently has three such departments operating in County Hall, Blackpool and Blackpool – meaning that the maximum number of new councils which could be created in the region, albeit across different footprints, would also be three.

Within the past 24 hours, Wyre Council has made an approach to the authorities in Blackpool, Fylde, Lancaster and Ribble Valley to explore the possibility of a single council covering the five areas. Leader David Henderson described it at this stage as a “tick-box exercise” to discuss a possible way forward in advance of publication of a government white paper on devolution in September.

“My bottom line is that it would have to be for the betterment of the people of Wyre,” he added.

Last year, Blackburn with Darwen Council suggested a “Pennine Lancashire” authority by merging Rossendale, Burnley and Pendle, but the latter two have since distanced themselves from the idea.

The issue is further complicated by the probable requirement for any councils which put forward a merger proposal to share a common boundary with suggested partners, so that areas cannot be leapfrogged.

Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver has so far not nailed his colours to the mast of any particular option for local government reorganisation, but he said that it was now obvious that it was “going to happen”.

He added that it would be “frustrating” if wrangling over the issue held back the process of devolution.

Some county council areas with only slightly smaller populations than Lancashire’s 1.5 million have proposed county-wide “super unitaries” in defiance of the government’s suggested upper population limit.

However, such an option for Lancashire would be likely to be met with strong opposition from the districts.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said that such an outcome would amount to “regional, not local government”.

“I’d be totally against that – even three new councils would potentially cover quite big areas, but in terms of the powers we’d get and the resources [from devolution], it would make sense.

“I want to see consensus on the issue, but sadly it’s not there at the moment.”

South Ribble Council leader Paul Foster said that a single new council covering the whole of Lancashire would be “an unmitigated disaster”.

“Lancashire is a wonderful county, but it has very different communities and they need local councils that can deal with the challenges they face.

“Retaining the two-tier system would be the best outcome for the people of Lancashire – and this is not a done deal yet, because Boris Johnson is taking on the core Tory base in the shires and districts, which are predominantly Conservative-controlled councils,” the Labour leader said.

Ribble Valley Council might illustrate that point. A petition to “save” the district from being subsumed into a standalone East Lancashire council has been signed by almost one in five of the voting population.

Its Conservative leader Stephen Atkinson said that devolution and council reorganisation should be treated as “two separate issues”.

“In the middle of the Covid pandemic and preparations for any second wave, the last thing we need is district council staff looking over their shoulder, worried about whether they are still going to have a job [after any changes to local government],” he said.

A combined authority would operate alongside any new councils created in Lancashire, with its membership drawn from them.

Any move to form such councils would have to begin with a request from an authority or a group of authorities to be invited by the government to submit a proposal. Unanimous agreement is not required amongst councils that would be affected by any proposed changes.

In theory, all 15 Lancashire councils could put forward their own competing visions of a new local authority landscape if the government invited them to do so.

WHAT POWERS FOR A LANCASHIRE MAYOR?

The in-principle agreement between Lancashire’s 15 local authorities to explore the creation of a combined authority and elected mayor stipulates that the mayoral role should be one with “limited powers”, the LDRS can reveal.

It is understood that at least two of Lancashire’s districts demanded the wording to guard against the creation of an all-powerful mayoral figure in the county and to ensure that the mayor acted to implement the decisions of combined authority members rather than initiate them.

Although the phrase was not defined in the agreement, it is understood to imply an arrangement similar to that used in the West Midlands Combined Authority. Depending on the matter under discussion, approval would require anything between a two thirds majority and unanimity amongst the constituent councils.

However, the “limited powers” restriction relates only to the relationship between the mayor and the members of the combined authority – and would not put any ceiling on the powers to be devolved to Lancashire by the government. Under a standard deal, they would be likely to include control over transport, skills and strategic planning.

Associated additional funding could be expected to amount to around £30m per year over three decades.

Last month’s leaders’ agreement is in the process of being considered by the memberships or cabinets of the county’s 15 councils. It has so far been backed by Lancashire County Council, and the district authorities in Chorley, South Ribble and Fylde. Preston had already supported a similar motion in April.

Fylde has come back to the table more than three years after it walked away from previous devolution discussions.

However, Pendle Council has now resolved not to support the creation of a combined authority and elected mayor at this stage, while it awaits further clarity on what may be on offer for Lancashire following publication of a government white paper on devolution expected in September. The authority was approached for comment on the decision.

In contrast to reorganisation, unanimity is likely to be demanded by the government before it will strike a devolution deal – although the refusal of a council on the geographical periphery of Lancashire to take part in any new arrangements may be tolerated.

Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver told the LDRS in April that “the people of Lancashire need to get the benefit of devolution as part of the levelling-up process which the government will get back to once we get the current crisis out of the way”.

Blackpool Council’s new leader Lynn Williams – speaking while she was still in an acting capacity late last week – said: “We have always supported the principle of a combined authority and elected mayor in order to maximise access to government funding, boost the Lancashire economy and improve opportunities for the people of Lancashire.

“We await the publication of a white paper in the autumn which will help facilitate further discussion.”