Preston 'won't be pushed around' over Lancashire county deal - but could it be left with nothing?

Preston could be left locked out of a Lancashire devolution deal - for pushing to make the county’s bid to the government more ambitious.

By Paul Faulkner
Friday, 28th January 2022, 12:37 pm
Updated Friday, 28th January 2022, 5:01 pm

That was the claim from opposition politicians on Preston City Council after the ruling Labour group sought to tweak an agreement between the leaders of Lancashire’s 15 local authorities in an attempt to encourage the county to seek powers similar to those that have previously been handed to Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.

Preston leader Matthew Brown was told that his actions would see the city cast into “the wilderness”.

The leader of Lancashire County Council, meanwhile, claimed that the move could even put the entire multi-billion pound devolution plan in jeopardy - because it gave ministers the impression that the county’s politicians were unable to co-operate.

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There were devolution disagreements behind the doors of the town hall (image: Google)

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However, Cllr Brown rubbished the suggestion that he was risking anything - and said he was duty bound to push for the best settlement for Preston. In a startling intervention, he also questioned whether a deal had already been done with the government behind closed doors which would prevent the kind of changes he wanted to see.

The spat threatened to send Lancashire’s latest devolution dream into disarray, suggesting that the apparent consensus between council leaders had begun to collapse at a pivotal point in trying to agree a negotiating position to secure a so-called “county deal” from Whitehall.

All 15 Lancashire council leaders this month signed up to a draft blueprint of the deal that the county intends to pursue. It would see Lancashire attempt to secure a £5.6bn package of devolved powers and cash covering areas including skills, transport, housing and climate change.

Councillors split largely along party lines over the issue

That vision is currently being put before the full memberships of each council to get their approval for the work done so far and to seek authorisation for the leaders to continue to discuss and develop the proposal between themselves - on the understanding that any formal pitch to the government would be brought back to all councillors for a final say.

Members are also being asked to give the green light to the principles of how Lancashire would discharge any new powers that may eventually be dished out to it - while specifically ruling out any possibility of an elected mayor or any change to current council structures, which have both previously proved roadblocks to a deal.

An identically-worded set of recommendations has been presented to every authority in the county for a vote - with the expectation that they would all stick to the script. Out of the 11 so far to have discussed the matter, nine have done just that - Out of the 11 so far to have discussed the matter, nine have done just that - Blackburn with Darwen, Chorley, Lancaster, Pendle, Ribble Valley, South Ribble, West Lancashire, Wyre and the county council.

However, at a meeting of Preston City Council, Cllr Brown inserted what he described as an “alteration” to the wording of one recommendation - which was passed by a majority - calling for “powers, freedoms, and resources” akin to the devolution deals agreed for neighbouring parts of the North West.

“All 15 leaders across Lancashire have entered into [the process] in good faith - we do want to see it work, but what we can’t countenance is a deal that's going to leave people in Preston and Lancashire significantly worse off than our counterparts in Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region.

“It’s our position that we need to state a strong case from day one about what we want for the residents of Lancashire. When you go into a negotiating dynamic, you don't…go low and then try to go even higher - you go as…ambitious as possible and you get something in between.

“As it stands..this document is not ambitious enough in any way shape or form.

“If you go to Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region, there are powers over bus regulation, significant powers around investment, homelessness and other powers that aren't in this initial draft,” said Cllr Brown, who added that Preston had not been “listened to” when he had asked for community wealth building measures such as a fair employment charter to form part of the proposal.

Conservative opposition group leader Sue Whittam, who is also part of the ruling group on the county council, said she was “flabbergasted” by the Preston chief’s stance in attempting to amend “a deal you negotiated”.

“Our original deal was that there [would be] no changes to district or city councils, no mayor…no giving up anything - but a commitment to show we're grown up [and can] put all our petty squabbles aside and work together for the benefit of all our communities. It appears that you now think different.

“The deal is hugely significant to Preston and Lancashire. We have had years of being Billy-no-mates and at last we are now making some progress.

“Yes, of course we'd like a bit more, [but] if you are part of the deal, you can contribute to the deal. If you change one thing [at this stage], you are putting it all at risk that you will no longer be part of the deal - and we will be left with a big black hole of debt.

“So you think going it alone will open up doors and bring us a golden goose? You talk about owning buses, owning a bank, community wealth building - with what? We will be out in the wilderness and we will have no-one to blame but you,” Cllr Whittam concluded.

Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter was equally withering, telling the meeting that there were only two options which explained the position that Preston was now taking.

“Either the leader has been massively incompetent and dropped the ball or he did [the] negotiations dishonesty.

“Don't let perfect [get] in the way of better - because this is better than what we have currently got. I’d have liked it to be much more, [but] this is an initial draft for discussion and development - nothing you want in any of this alteration is precluded [from] the deal.

“You could get everything that you asked for - and I actually agree with [that]. I have no problems with what you're saying, but you should have done it originally.

“If these things aren't in the deal, then it's your leadership that has let you down with it.

"The problem is that we are getting told by the Conservatives at the county council [that] if we do this, Preston will be removed from this deal,” Cllr Potter said, warning that if the city council started “messing around” with the draft agreement, it gave other districts licence to do the same.

Labour-run Burnley Council is the only other authority so far to have amended the shared report’s recommendations - although their concern was over the potential governance arrangements for any future devolution deal. That authority decided only to “note” the principles drawn up by the 15 leaders rather than overtly agree to them.

County council leader Phillippa Williamson told the Post that while individual councils were free to take whatever path they wanted when considering the draft agreement, she hoped those who have chosen to deviate from it would think again.

"We're disappointed that Burnley and Preston councils have decided not to work with the other Lancashire councils, because being united is the key to unlocking a meaningful devolution deal that will benefit all our residents.

"Because they have changed the joint report that was signed off by all 15 leaders in Lancashire, it means Burnley and Preston have removed themselves from our collective position. Of course, they have every right to do this, but we do hope they will reconsider and demonstrate a clear commitment to the shared aims and ambitions by passing the agreed recommendation at their councils unamended.

“Any other position does not promote to government the perception of a Lancashire that is working together and puts the whole process at risk," said County Cllr Williamson, who was also speaking on behalf of the leaders of Lancashire’s two unitary authorities - Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen - as well as the chair and deputy chair of the district leaders’ group, Ribble Valley leader Stephen Atkinson and Chorley leader Alistair Bradley.

Back at the debate in Preston, former deputy council leader Peter Moss expressed concern at how any deal would operate in the absence of an elected mayor and a simplification of Lancashire’s local government structure - both of which have, at various times, been government demands in return for a devolution settlement, but which were seemingly swept away by Boris Johnson last summer when he unveiled the concept of bespoke county deals.

“Under the proposed structures, who will [the public] think is democratically accountable for that £5.6bn - us, the county, who knows?” Cllr Moss asked.

“The same arguments about who’s doing this, who’s doing that and whose; responsibility [things are] will stay. This is simply a defence of the status quo with some more money - and the county council are simply trying to maintain their position."

Amongst the governance options that the leaders’ agreement has resolved to explore are the concepts of a joint committees or statutory board - but with the stipulation that it will operate on a one member, one vote basis, requiring a two thirds majority for any decision to be implemented.

Individual councils will have the right of a veto if a proposed project is in their patch, if their money is required or if they can “reasonably demonstrate that it is reasonably likely to have a material impact on their area”- unless there are special circumstances.

Conservative ward councillor for Ingol and Cottam, Trevor Hart, called Labour’s proposed alteration to the countywide framework a “bad day for Preston”.

“I hear conversations about not being in the driving seat - never mind not being in the driving seat, we won't even be on the bus if we take this through. The alterations, as far as I can see, are just crackers” he said.

However, deputy council leader Martyn Rawlinson condemned what he said was a “misleading” characterisation by the Tory group, which he likened to Red Wall MPs being told to “Shut up and be quiet or you'll get nothing.”

Former county council leader - and Lea and Larches representative - Jennifer Mein said that the outline deal as it stood was a substandard shopping list that left Lancashire being treated as “second-class citizens” compared to neighbouring areas with devolved power, while her fellow ward member Cllr David Borrow stressed that Preston was not saying it would “walk away” from the deal if it did not ultimately get everything it wanted.

Responding to the points raised in the debate, Cllr Brown said that he did not believe “for one second” that his alteration would “scupper [a deal”] or “exclude us from any process" - and he questioned the motivations of those who said it would.

“Why are [the county council] so keen to get this over the line in a couple of months? I'm getting suspicious that they don't want to speak to the districts at all - and Preston in particular.

“Has a deal already been done with the government minister - is this why we are being pressured? Preston will not be bullied or cajoled into doing something ...it will take a principled position,” said Cllr Brown.

The altered document was passed by a majority , with the Tory and Liberal Democrat groups voting against and Cllr Moss abstaining.

Speaking to the Post after the meeting, Cllr Brown decried what he said was the “take it or leave it approach” to the draft deal and called for more flexibility, especially given that a long-delayed government white paper on ‘levelling up’ - which could reframe the parameters of what the government wants to get out of county deals - is not now due to be published until next month.

Lancashire’s devolution journey has come to a dead end on several occasions in the more than six years that attempts have been made to strike a deal with the government. Deadlock has rarely been the result of direct disagreements with ministers, but rather the difficulty that the 15 different corners of the county have had in coming to a collective position on what is acceptable to them all.

As fissures once again seem to be forming in what tentatively looked like common ground, the question is whether the latest hope of Lancashire devolution will once again fall down the cracks.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE?

The proposed £5.6bn Lancashire devolution deal would hand Lancashire control over a likely combination of new money and existing public spending. It would be the biggest such agreement in monetary terms, but what about raw power? Here's how Lancashire's proposal stacks up to what Greater Manchester has control of, under devolved arrangements for the city region which have evolved over nearly a decade.

What Lancashire is asking for:

Economic Growth and Investment - including ability to strengthen and diversify the economy.

Transport, Connectivity and Infrastructure - including improvements to both physical East-West and county-wide digital connectivity.

Early Years, Education, Adult Skills and Employment - including ficus on school readiness and post-16 skills.

Environment, Climate Change, and Housing Quality - including decarbonisation and major improvements to housing.

What Greater Manchester gets:

2014 - powers over transport, business support, employment & skills support, spatial planning, housing investment.

2015 - bringing together health and social care budgets totalling £6bn. Also, a £450m Health and Social Care Transformation Fund; further transport devolution - including looking at options for control of rail stations - social housing reform, and control over EU funding

2016 - establishment of Greater Manchester Life Chances Fund. Also, criminal justice devolution

2017 - local industrial strategy pilot, homelessness funding, transforming cities funding, post-16 education and training, and mayoral capacity funding.

Sources: Our New Deal for Greater Lancashire and Greater Manchester Combined Authority

WYRE GIVES DEVOLUTION DEAL THE GREEN LIGHT

Having declined to take part in Lancashire's first stab at devolution in 2016 over concerns about an elected mayor, Wyre Council has now thrown its weight behind the latest attempt. The draft deal proposal won unanimous backing at a meeting of the full council.

Council leader David Henderson said: "The report which has been agreed lays down the good work that has been done so far - and it allows us to go to the government and say that we are all in accord.

"Some people have asked me what will happen if the government says no. Well, we have explained that we don't want an elected mayor - although an elected spokesperson from the council leaders would be absolutely fine.

""This is collaboration on a scale that Lancashire has never seen before. It sends out the strong message that we are united and unwilling to be left behind."

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