South Ribble agrees devolution to stop Lancashire being "left behind"

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South Ribble Borough Council has become the latest Lancashire district to sign up to a draft plan for how the county can get a devolution deal from the government.

The authority’s leader, Paul Foster, urged members to “grasp” the opportunity offered by the blueprint, which would form the basis for further discussion over attempts to secure a £5.6bn package of devolved investment covering areas including skills, transport, housing and climate change.

He was one of the 15 Lancashire council leaders who agreed the outline plan earlier this month and who have been charged with taking it back to their own authorities to get the green light for continuing the process.

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READ MORE >>> Lancashire county deal: councils draw up £5.6bn devolution bid to improve housing, transport and skills .

South Ribble councillors have signed up tot he principles of a devolution planSouth Ribble councillors have signed up tot he principles of a devolution plan
South Ribble councillors have signed up tot he principles of a devolution plan

Cllr Foster acknowledged that relationships between the 12 district, two standalone and one county council in Lancashire had previously been strained during other devolution attempts, but said that he and his colleagues had now “banged our heads together and said, ‘Come on, there must be something we can do’.”

“I think it all focused our minds before Christmas when the government announced [transport investment of £1bn for Greater Manchester and £710m for the Liverpool City Region] - and diddly squat to Lancashire.

“Why didn't they give anything to Lancashire? Because we didn't have…that legal entity of joint working that [they] could send the money to to invest in our communities. We have missed out time and time again.

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“We only need to look at the state of the railway, the state of the roads and how it long it takes you to travel east to west, [which is] appalling.”

Cllr Foster stressed that, unlike some previous iterations of proposed devolution deals for Lancashire, there was now no question of any Lancashire council being abolished as part of the process.

In 2020 - when simplification of Lancashire’s council structure was a government requirement before a deal could be done, two versions of a standalone Central Lancashire authority were floated which would have seen South Ribble merge with Chorley, West Lancashire and possibly Preston - and the county council scrapped.

Cllr Foster welcomed that the latest push for devolved power maintained the current “two-tier” arrangement in Lancashire and said that although he would have preferred a mayor to oversee any additional responsibilities and resources that may come to the county, he accepted that such a role would be a deal-breaker for some other authorities.

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“Local decision-making could be enhanced [by devolution], because we all know around this table what needs to be done to make us and Preston and us and Chorley better, locally, with our infrastructure and our railways,” Cllr Foster added.

He noted that leaders had been asked not to amend the recommendations agreed by the 15 of them. As the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed earlier this week, Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said he was “minded” to move an amendment when the matter is considered by his authority, calling specifically for similar powers to those enjoyed by Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.

It has since been confirmed that such a change will be put to Preston councillors on Thursday afternoon, but within the “impact statement” part of their report rather than within the formal recommendations.

Cllr Michael Green, a Conservative opposition group member on South Ribble Borough Council and cabinet member for health and wellbeing at County Hall, said that Lancashire was being “left behind” by neighboring areas that had secured devolution several years ago.

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He added: “It has been tortuous to get the 15 leaders to agree, but they have done - and a lot of credit is owed to [Lancashire County Council leader] Phillippa Williamson and all the other leaders.

“I think this is a deal we can all be excited about, it’s an ambitious dea;…that the county as a whole could benefit from - and we could make sure that we see our share of benefit in South Ribble.

“We have almost got nothing to lose, but everything to gain,” Cllr Green said.

Liberal Democrat opposition group leader at South Ribble, David Howarth - who also sits on the county authority - similarly paid tribute to County Cllr Williamson for fostering consensus over the latest plan.

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“She does have an open door [and] I had a meeting with her last week. She doesn't need to meet with me…because on [the] county [council] we are a group of two, but she does and she explains the position to us, we have discussions with her - and that inclusivity can only be something that is beneficial.”