The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that members of the ruling Conservative group at Lancashire County Council backed the suggested shake-up at a private meeting of their number held over the weekend.
The authority’s chief executive has now been tasked with putting together a more detailed proposal for government approval, possibly as soon as the beginning of September. A majority of county councillors would also have to support the changes before they could be pitched to ministers.
Under the plan, the 131-year-old county council would itself be abolished, along with all 12 district authorities and the two standalone councils in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.
In their place would come three so-called “unitary” councils covering central and southern parts of the county (Preston, South Ribble, Chorley and West Lancashire), a broad western and northern area (Blackpool, Wyre, Fylde, Lancaster and Ribble Valley) and the east (Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Rossendale, Hyndburn and Pendle).
That was in response to recent insistence from the government that any deal must be accompanied by a reduction in the number of councils operating in Lancashire, in order to make a combined authority – whose membership would be drawn from the council base – more workable.
However, as the LDRS revealed last week, the LGA declined the invitation to assist in reshaping Lancashire’s local authority set-up, because of likely disunity in the county over the issue. Their assessment may yet prove prescient, with the county council’s proposal now being drafted without any consultation with the district authorities – some of which favour the status quo.
Crucially, the government does not require unanimous agreement amongst councils for any proposed changes. Under a convoluted arrangement, each authority is free to ask the government to be invited to put forward its own proposal for ministers to consider.
If the overtures to the government – either from the county council or any other Lancashire authority – have the desired effect, and Whitehall considers that it is in meaningful discussions over reshaping the local authority landscape in Lancashire, it is likely that next year’s county elections will be cancelled.
It is believed that ministers would like to see any new unitary councils in place by May 2022, when elections to the freshly-created authorities would take place. That would mean extending the four-year term of the current crop of county councillors for a further 12 months.
Lancashire County Council’s Conservative leader Geoff Driver has previously told the LDRS that the county would have to accept the requirements for an elected mayor and council reorganisation if it wanted to be part of the ”levelling up agenda” to rebalance the economy, as promoted by the Prime Minister following last year’s general election
In response to the plan to create a trio of new councils in Lancashire, County Cllr Driver said: “For far too long Lancashire has missed out on the benefits of devolution because of internal squabbles about how our structures are organised. It’s time to set aside petty politicking and break that logjam.
“These bold and ambitious proposals represent a once-in-a-generation change that will transform Lancashire and benefit everyone who lives in this great county.”
However, opposition leaders at County Hall have condemned the timing of the reorganisation proposal.
Labour group leader Azhar Ali said that Lancashire was being “sold down the river”.
“I would have thought that this was the time for all councillors to work together to lobby government for more money, after over half a billion pounds of cuts to the county over the last ten years – and not a reorganisation where you end up putting money into sacking people without actually knowing what you’re going to get in return from devolution.
“Last week, Transport for the North received £600m of funding – and not a penny of it came to Lancashire.
“I’m shocked that while the country is in a crisis, the only thing the Lancashire Conservatives can think about is reorganising the deckchairs on the Titanic to save their own jobs,” County Cllr Ali added.
At a full council meeting earlier this month, the Labour group said that it would reluctantly support a combined authority and elected mayor as part of efforts to secure a devolution deal.
However, the Liberal Democrats at County Hall are opposed to both reorganisation and the proposed new mayor.
Group leader David Whipp said it was “not the right thing and not the right time”.
“It is beyond belief that while we are dealing with a public health emergency, the people who ought to be working their socks off to help keep people alive are instead staring at their naval.
“Energy and effort will now be diverted into these endless discussions, which will only end up with local residents losing control. Power must be available at the most local level, so that people are able to influence decisions – to lose that would be a tragedy,” County Cllr Whipp warned.
Meanwhile, a senior Conservative figure in Lancashire said that the proposed changes risked starting a “bloody civil war” within the party at a local level.
The LDRS understands that were fears Lancashire could lose out if wrangling over reorganisation caused any delay in putting forward the county’s pitch to government, with a slew of devolution discussions expected to begin across the North during the autumn.
A long-awaited government white paper on the subject is due to be published during the first week of September. While some Lancashire leaders would prefer to keep their powder dry until they see the contents of the document, the jockeying for position – and influence – has already begun.
County Hall’s chief executive, Angie Ridgwell, is understood to be developing an outline business case to back-up the proposal for a three-way split, with aim of it being ready in advance of the white paper’s release.
Meanwhile, the monthly meeting of Lancashire leaders – at which matters such as this would usually be discussed – has been cancelled in August. As the LDRS revealed last week, the last gathering of the 15 leaders ended in acrimony, with four of them walking out of the virtual session before the discussion was abandoned.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government declined to confirm that Lancashire County Council’s planned elections could be cancelled next year, in the event of progress on a reorganisation plan.
A spokesperson said: “We have set out a clear commitment to level up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster.
“We are considering a range of options and will set out our detailed plans in the white paper that will be published this autumn.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR JOBS?
At this early stage, there are no details on the impact of any new local government structure in Lancashire on the number of local authority jobs in the region.
However, the union UNISON said that it was “keeping a close eye on developments” over reorganisation.
North West Regional Organiser James Rupa said the organisation would “expect to be consulted in a meaningful way regarding any changes”.
“Public service workers have kept the country running during this pandemic and they deserve to have a say over a significant upheaval which could lead to job losses.”
“The biggest issue facing local authorities in 2020 is under-funding. Our councils are under huge financial pressure and a costly re-organisation may exacerbate existing problems. However local government is structured, the key to Lancashire’s economic recovery lies in properly resourced public services.”
WHAT DO LANCASHIRE’S LEADERS THINK?
There is limited room for manoeuvre when it comes to reorganising Lancashire’s council structure, because of stipulations already laid down by the government over what it will accept.
Any new unitary authority must have a population of between 300,000 and 700,000, although there are indications that the upper limit may yet be revised. With 1.5 million residents, the most likely solution would be some version of the three-way split being proposed by the county council – particularly as the government has also said that it will not allow the creation of any new children’s services departments, of which Lancashire already has three at County Hall and in Blackpool and Blackburn.
Some district leaders have so far suggested that they accept the premise of that plan, but not the way it has been drawn up, while others are critical of the concept, the timing – or both.
Here's our A-Z guide of what they had to say.
Council leader Mohammed Khan was approached for comment. The authority last year floated the idea of a Pennine unitary council, comprising itself, Burnley, Hyndburn, Rossendale and Pendle.
New council leader Lynn Williams was approached for comment on the latest reorganisation proposal. Speaking more generally on the subject last week, she told the LDRS: “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.”
The authority last week came out against reorganisation as a pre-requisite of a devolution deal. Council leader Charlie Briggs said: "Burnley Council's position is clear - we do not accept that setting up new unitary councils should be a condition for the establishment of a Lancashire Combined Authority. Our focus is on restoring our economy as quickly as possible, so we should keep our attention on how a Combined Authority could assist with that."
Labour opposition group leader Mark Townsend, who has the most seats on the coalition-run authority, said that he had always been enthusiastic about devolution and reorganisation – but condemned County Cllr Driver for “drawing lines on maps behind closed doors”.
“I think it’s a complete failure if we’ve come to this – we’re in for trench warfare. A strong East Lancashire unitary could work, but it needs to be based on consensus not forced marriages.
“These changes are coming down the tracks and we have to embrace them at some time, but we’ve got to know what the end game is before we sign up for that. This seems to be saying reorganise first and then we’ll sort it out.
“I think it’ll be an absolute disaster for Burnley and I really am worried that we will get walked all over and we’re not going to have much say or clout.”
Council leader Alistair Bradley was approached for comment. The authority last week supported the principle of a combined authority and elected mayor, subject to confirmation of the final arrangements – as well as accepting the need for local government reorganisation as part of the process.
Council leader Karen Buckley was unavailable for comment. The authority last week supported moves to explore the option of a combined authority, elected mayor and local government reorganisation.
Council leader Miles Parkinson was approached for comment.
City Council leader Erica Lewis said that the proposal from County Hall had not changed her view that “the best way forward in term so local government restructuring for Lancaster districts lies with South Lakeland and Barrow – and I’d encourage the county council to consider that option”.
“I’m disappointed, but not surprised that County Cllr Driver has both cancelled the next scheduled meeting of Lancashire Leaders and has decided to put forward this proposal without discussion with us.”
The authority voted earlier this month not to support a combined authority and elected mayor at this stage, due to a lack of clarity over what was on the table.
Council leader Mohammed Iqbal said of the latest reorganisation proposal: “Clearly, the county council under the Conservatives has a different agenda to the people of Lancashire. Until the government tells us what is in their white paper on devolution, I can’t sign up to what the county council wants us to do.”
The authority has made an in-principle commitment to a combined authority and elected mayor, but leader Matthew Brown said that any moves towards reorganisation should be done on the basis of consensus. However, he did indicated that he did not necessarily disagree with the idea of joining up with South Ribble, Chorley and West Lancashire to create a new authority.
“It makes sense in that we work together economically and in terms of housing and health, but the problem I have is with the way this has been done.
“We’re talking about the biggest shake-up of local government for over 40 years – so regardless of the merit of the proposal, we’ve got to behave like adults and not a load of schoolchildren. This is very important in terms of the future of the county.”
The authority has voted to await publication of the white paper before exploring the possibility of a combined authority and elected mayor - and to reject reorganisation as a precondition of devolution. Members also supported a call to ensure that any changes can be shown to improve service delivery - and can demonstrate "good support" following a local referendum.
Conservative leader Stephen Atkinson said that he could not fathom the speed at which the county council proposal was being put forward.
“A key principle of the standards in public life is objectivity. How can you be objective on the future of local government by submitting a plan when you don’t know what the options are going to be in the government’s white paper?
“The real worry is that this is all happening without any consultation with residents. I think it’s essential that there is a referendum – both in the Ribble Valley and Lancashire-wide – and one of the options must be to continue with the current system.”
Council leader Alyson Barnes said that two-tier local 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.”
Labour council leader Paul Foster last week said that he did not believe that the two-tier system of local government was broken, but in responding to the plan for a central and southern Lancashire council, he said that he was “open to that and other alternative ideas”.
“We need to get round the table to discuss all this and we need some clarity from the government. But why is the Lancashire County Council Conservative group making decisions on this without any of the districts [being involved]?”
Labour council leader Ian Moran said that he had already spoken to opposition politicians in the district about proposals for a combined authority and council reorganisation.
He said: “For many years, County Cllr Driver refused to engage with the district leaders on the issue of a combined authority, he very rarely attended meetings and when he did start to engage after we made him chair of the shadow combined authority he did nothing but scheme to create a Lancashire super authority.
"I, along with opposition leaders here in West Lancashire, are concerned with County Cllr Driver's plans and whether it will help West Lancs residents or the businesses that operate here. We will support proposals that are in the best interests of West Lancashire.“
Last week, Conservative council leader David Henderson said that he wanted to start “a conversation” with councils in Blackpool, Fylde, Lancaster and Ribble Valley about forming a new authority covering the five areas. His proposal matches that which has now been put forward by County Hall.
“Whilst the idea is possibly a natural move forward, it must be remembered that a combined authority has to be agreed by all parties and the government in the first instance, before reorganisation,” Cllr Henderson said.
The standalone councils in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen are responsible for all local authority services delivered in their areas.
Lancashire County Council delivers major services such as social care, schools and highways in the rest of the region. The county is then divided into twelve district councils which look after areas such as leisure, parks and waste collection and also make most planning decisions.
On government insistence, the two-tier system would be replaced by a so-called ‘unitary’ model as part of any reorganisation. That would see the creation of new single-tier councils covering wider areas than the current district and standalone authorities.
The councils in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen already operate on that model and are responsible for all local authority services delivered in their areas.
£844m – Lancashire County Council’s annual budget
84 – number of Lancashire county councillors
£160m – combined annual budget of Lancashire’s 12 district councils
560+ – number of district councillors
1889 – the year Lancashire County Council was formed
1974 – the year the district councils in their current form were created
1998 – the year Blackpool and Blackburn formed their own standalone councils