Lancashire leaders react to the proposed abolition of their authorities
There has been a mixed reaction from local authorities across Lancashire to a proposal from Lancashire County Council to abolish itself - and them.
County Hall has made a formal pitch to the government to redraw the council map by creating three new, standalone authorities in the area. It is part of an attempt to secure a devolution deal for Lancashire, which will lead to the creation of an elected mayor and a separate combined authority.
The government has said that it will only consider such a deal if two-tier council areas like Lancashire simplify their current complex local government structures.
The county council has suggested that the new areas would comprise "Central Lancashire" (based on the footprints of Preston, Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire councils), "North West Lancashire" (Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre, Lancaster and Ribble Valley) and "East Pennine Lancashire" (Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle).
All 15 council leaders in Lancashire have agreed "in principle" to explore an elected mayor with limited powers, a combined authority and local government reorganisation - but differences over their own authorities' futures remain.
Several have criticised the content and timing of the county council proposal - while one has said that government will have to impose changes in Lancashire, because agreement is so unlikely.
It is understood that the government will insist on unanimous agreement amongst the areas to be covered by a combined authority - but not over any associated shake-up of councils.
WHAT THE LEADERS SAY
Blackburn with Darwen
Last year, Cllr Mohammed Khan suggested to the government exactly the kind of "East Pennine Lancashire" authority which has now been proposed by the county council.
Commenting on the latest development, he said: “This is broadly in line with our longstanding request. We fully support the proposition to move things on as soon as possible so that there can be a final proposal and recommendations based on evidence and consultation.”
Cllr Lynn Williams said: "Blackpool has long been supportive of collaborative working in Lancashire. Whether that is the Fylde Coast’s Economic Prosperity Board, the work of the Lancashire Resilience Forum, our many shared services with other authorities or our role with the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership. We have also long been a supporter of a combined authority for Lancashire, in order to access devolved funding and powers from Westminster.
"The devolution white paper is expected later this month and we consider that it is prudent to await its publication prior to any further action. Our collective focus at this time needs to be on the urgent work of protecting our communities from COVID-19 and in supporting the recovery of our economy."
Cllr Charlie Briggs was approached for comment. The authority earlier this summer came out against reorganisation as a pre-requisite of a devolution deal.
The authority last month wrote to government, along with South Ribble and West Lancashire, proposing to form a so -called "unitary" council across the three areas - but excluding Preston, which is part of the county council's proposals for Central Lancashire.
On the county council's proposal, Cllr Alistair Bradley said that he was concerned that it appeared to have been "done in a rush".
County Cllr Driver hasn't even consulted his own council, so I don't know where the validity is for this plan. There isn't a unanimity of approach in Lancashire, so I'd urge the government to do things properly and have a conversation with all of the county and not just a small part of it."
Cllr Karen Buckley was approached for comment. The authority earlier this summer supported moves to explore the option of a combined authority, elected mayor and local government reorganisation.
Cllr Miles Parkinson said that his authority will "engage with all options" on council reorganisation - but he believes that Lancashire will have to be told what to do by ministers, because it will fail to come to a consensus across the different parts of the county.
"I think there will have to be an instruction from the government, banging heads together. If they insist on an agreement between councils, then it's clearly not going to happen, because there has never been unanimity [on this issue].
"It can't be done in piecemeal fashion either - because what happens to the other areas left behind?
"The government white paper will determine whether we are kicking cans down the road or opening a can and making a meal."
Cllr Erica Lewis has previously set out her preference for Lancaster to lean towards a tie-up with South Lakeland and Barrow councils, because of the economic links between the three areas.
Respomding to County Hall's latest move, she said: "The proposal appears to have been a rush job, made in a desperate attempt to get Lancashire into tranche 1 [of devolution deals] in order to avoid elections next May."
"The document offers nothing to suggest that Lancaster would be better off in the arbitrary division of Lancashire into three unitaries, rather than pursuing our existing partnership with South Lakeland & Barrow."
The authority has said that it cannot support a combined authority and elected mayor at this stage due to a "lack of clarity" about what is on the table. Responding to County Hall's newly-published plan, Cllr Mohammed Iqbal said that there had been "no consultation with district authorities" like his.
"It hasn't gone before the county council either - so this is just another example of County Cllr Driver trying to circumvent the system for political gain."
The city council has put forward a proposal for a Central Lancashire authority, identical to that suggested by County Hall. However, leader Matthew Brown said his council's motivation was different.
"We are focused on social justice outcomes like better housing and tackling poverty - and we want to build back better after the pandemic. If a Central Lancashire council is created, it should be led by the district authorities in the area - because we have the local knowledge of our communities and will engage with them.
"The two-tier system isn't working for Preston - you only have to look at the [long-thwarted] plans for a youth zone and also the fact that the county council was going to work with us on our cinema development, but then decided not to.
"Although there will be some reduction in the number of councillors, it must not be a severe drop, because we mustn't replace local government with regional government."
The council has demanded a referendum on any changes that would see the district scrapped. Leader Stephen Atkinson also said it was "extraordinary" that the county council proposal had not gone through the authority's own decision-making processes.
"Their leader is effectively ending a 131-year-old institution with a letter to the government. Whereas in the Ribble Valley, almost 10,000 people have signed a petition to keep the borough council - and we are clear that the people must have their say, so that document will soon be landing on the Prime Minister's desk.
"The Lancashire leaders also agreed in principle to an elected mayor with only limited powers - yet there is no mention of [that stipulation] in the county council document."
Cllr Alyson Barnes was unavailable for comment. Speaking when the county council's plan was first revealed in July, she said two-tier government had "had its day".
“It’s a very expensive option for residents, offering poor value for money and poor services. In terms of what comes next, it needs to offer the best option for Rossendale residents.”
The borough has previously backed a proposal to create a new unitary with Chorley and West Lancashire, but excluding Preston. However, council leader Paul Foster said the timing of the county council's move "couldn't be worse".
"Lancashire Conservatives have published their plans for the abolition of each and every district council in Lancashire, which, rather frustratingly, appears to be their priority over Covid, for some very odd reason.
"The proposals submitted are exceptionally poor quality and lack any detail. We understand it is being rushed as the Lancashire Conservatives want next year's county council elections cancelling. We will do everything in our power to ensure this doesn't occur - even using the High Court if needs be.
"If Lancashire County Council aren't up to [the job], pass the baton to the district councils; we are the people in touch with the massive challenges our residents and businesses face.
"The last thing they want to see is local government reorganisation at this time."
The borough last month backed a proposal to create a new unitary with Chorley and South Ribble, but not Preston, because the inclusion of the latter authority would be akin to creating a "mini-county council", according to Cllr Ian Moran.
Speaking about the county council's latest move, he said that West Lancashire would continue to work with its neighbouring authorities, but added: "At this time, our entire focus should be on the rising number of Covid cases. It is not the right move to be looking at plans for local government reorganisation."
The borough last month floated the idea of a merger with other authorities which matches the "North West Lancashire" proposal that has now been formally put forward by County Hall.
However, Cllr David Henderson added: "It's a shame that district councils were not consulted over the content of this document before it was sent off. However, Wyre will continue to have constructive discussions with our neighbours."
COUNTY LEADER RESPONDS TO CRITICISM
Addressing the critical comments from some district leaders, County Cllr Driver accused them of "predictable games".
"They have successfully stalled this to protect their own self interests for several years, so it's no surprise that they are not happy we are moving it forward.”