Lancashire's leaders come out in support of a combined authority for the county "in principle"
The leaders of all 15 local authorities in Lancashire have backed “the principle” of creating a new combined authority in the county.
It is the first time that unanimity has been achieved on the divisive issue since councils began discussing the idea four years ago.
Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver told a meeting of his own authority’s cabinet that he and his counterparts reached the agreement earlier this week.
However, even this tacit approval is still subject to acquiring the consent of each individual council – and might yet become embroiled in potentially fractious discussions about the reorganisation of Lancashire’s complex local authority map.
The leaders are to seek advice on that subject from the Local Government Association – and possibly, at later stage, from two peers – after Whitehall officials suggested earlier this year that a simplified council structure might be demanded before the government would approve a combined authority and strike a related devolution deal for the county.
The prospect of such an agreement – which could hand Lancashire greater powers over transport, skills and strategic planning, along with extra funding of at least £30m per year for 30 years – has proved elusive.
While neighbouring areas in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region signed on the dotted line several years ago, Lancashire got bogged down in internal debate about whether it wanted an elected mayor – a post usually required as part of a combined authority.
At any given time, one or more district authorities have left the table over both that issue and disquiet about whether they would be denied a veto under the new arrangements.
The county council cabinet has now voted to back the principle of a combined authority and the elected mayor to go with it.
County Cllr Driver said that he did not think that the county would be given “much choice” about whether to rethink its local authority set-up, something which would continue to exist alongside any new combined authority and also determine its membership.
“The messages that we’re getting are that the government is seeing…a combined authority and a local government review as going hand in glove, because they see the need to simplify the local government structure,” the Conservative leader said, adding that a white paper on the issue was expected in the autumn.
Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that he backed both the principle of an elected mayor and some council reorganisation to avoid the risk of multiple tiers of local government “frustrating decision-making”.
“It’s now time for this council to be leading the way – we’ve got to stop dithering as we have been for the last couple of years.
“I’ve sent the same message to district colleagues to say we’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee – because if we don’t, we’re going to fall further behind,” County Cllr Ali said, praising the county’s “incredible talent”.
County Cllr Driver dismissed the charge of dithering and said that districts from both sides of the political divide had held up the process – adding that he was encouraging Tory district leaders to overcome the “significant provisos” in the agreement Lancashire’s leaders reached this week.
Blackpool Council leader Simon Blackburn, who chaired a shadow combined authority for the county when it formed back in 2016 and is now vice chair of the Lancashire Leaders’ Group, said of the agreement: “Party politics has frankly got in the way of this welcome development for far too long.
“After four long years, it feels like the people of Lancashire are getting closer to having a spokesperson who can make the case for the county. We cannot allow Greater Manchester and Merseyside to continue to dominate the Northern Powerhouse and devolution agenda – and I’m delighted at the maturity of the approach now being taken.”
Papers presented to the county council cabinet meeting suggested that it might still be possible to secure a deal with government if “one or two authorities” declined to sign up to the combined authority concept, but that “undoubtedly a stronger case could be made to government if all 15 move forward together”.
A detailed proposal is now set to be prepared for each Lancashire council to consider. Existing work, initiated before the pandemic, on a Greater Lancashire Plan could be used to set out the county’s ambitions.