The county’s absence from the priority list of places which are next up to enter negotiations for more local powers and cash was revealed in the government’s long-awaited “Levelling Up” white paper, which sets out how ministers plan to reduce inequalities between different parts of the UK.
Lancashire scored ten mentions in the repeatedly-delayed document - but none of them heralded any new schemes that were not already known about. Nine of the namechecks related to previously-announced projects for which the county has secured funding or investment from Whitehall, while one was simply a passing reference to the importance of strong manufacturing firms.
Similarly, Preston was flagged up three times, but only in relation to plans that have been publicised in the past - some of them under the Levelling Up umbrella, like its successful £19.9m Towns Fund, and some regarding specific projects like the provisional plan for a new hospital or hospitals to replace both the Royal Preston and the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.
Blackpool was highlighted 22 times, but on eight of those occasions it was only to highlight the town’s poor performance in health and social indicators such as it having the biggest gap in healthy life expectancy compared to the national average. Like Lancashire as a whole, the remaining references related to previous announcements about Blackpool, like its successful £39.5m Towns Fund bid last year.
However, it was Lancashire’s absence from such a long list of areas with which the government intends to open up discussions for so-called “county deals” for devolution that drew the strongest criticism from some quarters.
The county’s 15 councils are currently being asked to back a blueprint agreed by their leaders which will form the basis of a bid to ministers in which Lancashire will attempt to secure £5.6bn worth of devolved powers and funding in areas such as skills, housing and transport.
Twelve authorities have so far supported the proposal - although two, Preston and Burnley, have sought to slightly reword it. After the final three councils are asked for their views next week, the Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that there will be a crunch meeting of Lancashire leaders to decide whether to progress with the plan.
That would mark the most significant moment in six years’ of attempts to secure devolution for Lancashire, which have previously been dogged by wrangles over past government requirements for an elected mayor and the scrapping of local councils in their current form.
However, Lancashire County Council’s Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali blames what he describes as time previously spent “navel-gazing” as the reason that Lancashire has been overlooked for the next round of devolution discussions, just at the point the county is ready to come to the table with a pitch.
“We can't even agree to have unitary authorities [to replace the two-tier county and district system], because some of the districts would lose their empires - it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. They want to carry on in their own little world and that has hit us hard now.
“It just shows that the government don't take Lancashire seriously. We have had all this hoorah about how we've got to get an agreement [between the 15 councils], but we’re not seen to be ambitious enough or ready for a devolution deal - and that really is a big kick in the teeth of local government leaders in Lancashire,” County Cllr Ali said.
But County Hall’s Conservative leader Phillippa Williamson, who has spearheaded the latest Lancashire-wide talks, was more optimistic and welcomed the white paper’s “vision to give powers back to local areas”.
“For too long decision-making in England has been seen to be remote from local people and the white paper sends the clearest signal yet that government is willing to radically change that power dynamic.
She added: "Here in the county, I have been working closely with local leaders to put a clear proposition to government about how Lancashire can take more control of its own destiny. That close collaboration will be key in ensuring that we seize the opportunities the white paper sets out."
Although those twin roadblocks to previous Lancashire devolution attempts - the imposition of an elected mayor and the need for local government reorganisation - appeared to have been swept away by Boris Johnson during a speech on levelling up last summer, the white paper does seem to signify a continuing enthusiasm within government for mayors to oversee how devolved powers are discharged.
It explicitly states that those authorities “with stronger decision-making structures will secure greater powers” and alludes to three different “models” of governance that will each attract a corresponding degree of local control. If Lancashire rules out an elected mayor - as its current draft proposal for a deal does - it seems clear that the county will not scale the highest heights of devolved power.
The document also sets out an intention to devolve more transport powers to mayoral combined authority areas, while these localities are also promised “significant” new bus investment, along with some other locations. Lancashire last year submitted a £165m bid under the government's then £3bn “Bus Back Better” strategy. Although no specific announcement on that bid has yet been made, the overall budget has since reportedly been halved by the Treasury.
It was a keenness for more control over transport which prompted Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown to call for Lancashire’s devolution proposal to be more ambitious when a revised version was passed by his authority last week with the wording tweaked so that it set out an intention for Lancashire to seek similar powers to those enjoyed by the mayors in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region.
He stands by that decision and says he has been left "uninspired" by the white paper itself.
“[The UK] is very centralised in terms of how taxation is raised. Having a fairer council tax and business rates system - making [the latter] so that you could potentially charge wealthier businesses more and local ones less - could have been included [in the white paper].
“It’s also very unambitious in terms of tackling structural inequalities. My own view is that we need to move towards a different economic model and that would start in the regions, but none of that is in there.
"We'll negotiate positively with whichever government the people of the country elect, but I came to the conclusion some time ago that nobody is going to rescue us and we have got to pretty much do stuff on our own on Preston and build our own resilience and destiny - hence the policies we have of regenerating our city centre in public ownership," said Cllr Brown, who added that he would have been open to both an elected mayor and local government reorganisation if they were “done properly”.
Reflecting something of a division between the county and some of the district Labour groups in Lancashire, South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster welcomed the fact that the white paper does not demand a redrawing of Lancashire’s complex local government map.
“That secures the medium to long-term future of South Ribble, which is really pleasing,” Cllr Foster said.
The government has said that it will offer areas a “menu of options" when it comes to devolution, suggesting a pick-and-mix approach to powers and structures, which would suit counties like Lancashire where consensus over change has been difficult to achieve.
Some of the specific ambitions highlighted in the white paper - such as a focus on skills and productivity and an aim to reduce poor quality private rented housing by 50 percent by 2030 - chime with the county’s own embryonic proposal.
Stephen Atkinson, chair of the Lancashire district leaders’ group - and Ribble Valley Council's Conservative leader - believes that the county stands in good stead for a good deal, but might have to be patient.
“Where Lancashire has been wise because of its size is in trying to work with its districts to get the strategic and the local combined in one - that’s the real asset for the county and the white paper recognises that that can happen.
“We’re ambitious to do a quick deal with the government. but we've got to respect everybody's democratic process [locally]. If the government have got more advanced talks with other people, then so be it,” said Cllr Atkinson, who has long opposed the idea of an elected mayor and the wholesale restructure of Lancashire’s local authorities.
His deputy on the district leaders’ group, Chorley Council’s Labour chief Alistair Bradley, added that being left off the list for the next set of deliberations between ministers and local areas might work to Lancashire’s advantage in the long term.
“Areas will go up and down this ladder and the next step after [Lancashire’s draft proposal has been ratified by each council] will be to have a conversation with the government about how we get on the ladder.
“[Other areas] will hit barriers - you get so far and then you have to get over a hurdle.
“The benefit of [not yet being listed] is that it allows us to come up with our own timetable and agenda. Other areas will slide up and down the ladder until they've made the deal, because that's the nature of the beast.”
DON’T LOOK DOWN
The boss of a private sector lobbying and networking group has blamed an ongoing failure to agree a radical overhaul of Lancashire’s convoluted council structure for the county’s absence from a list of nine areas which are next in line to enter discussions for a county deal.
The government’s long-awaited “Levelling Up” white paper invites Cornwall, Derbyshire and Derby, Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, Durham, Hull and East Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire and Nottingham, and Suffolk to take part in formal negotiations with a view to sewing up devolution deals by this autumn.
Frank McKenna, group chairman and chief executive of Downtown in Business, says that Lancashire, in contrast, has been condemned to a decade of being “levelled down”.
“We have been consistently calling on the county’s politicians to get their act together and come up with a vision and a plan that creates a modernised local governance structure that is fit-for-purpose for the twenty-first century.
“Instead, we have seen bluff, bluster, and confusion, with councillors from County Hall and some of the districts putting their own parochial and personal preferences before the good of Lancashire.
“What Levelling Up minister Michael Gove has made absolutely clear in his white paper is that there is an opportunity for all places to benefit from devolved structures – and with that will come extra cash. If we maintain our current three-tier council structure in Lancashire, then we will be relegated from the slow lane to the hard shoulder as far as economic development, inward investment and regeneration is concerned.
“It is simply not good enough, and it is time now for the private sector to step up our efforts and demand long-overdue change,” said Mr. McKenna, one-time deputy Labour leader of Lancashire County Council.
He noted that neighbouring Greater Manchester - which has enjoyed devolved powers since 2017 - could now gain even more freedom under leveling up plans, with it being identified as a potential “trailblazer” area.
“It is disappointing, if not surprising, that Lancashire has once again failed to make the Whitehall cut.
“The white paper offers an opportunity for areas to get a devolution deal if they want one. That must now be Lancashire’s aim.
“If our politicians fail to take that opportunity, then the county will fall further behind its neighbours in Manchester, Liverpool and across the Pennines in West Yorkshire.
“That would be a dereliction of duty and an act of wilful self-harm.”
WHAT’S IN THE WHITE PAPER?
Levelling Up secretary Michael Gove said that the white paper seeks to tackle the fact that, “for decades, too many communities have been overlooked and undervalued”.
“The United Kingdom is an unparalleled success story. We have one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic economies. Ours is the world’s most spoken language. We have produced more Nobel Prize winners than any country other than America.
“But not everyone shares equally in the UK’s success. As some areas have flourished, others have been left in a cycle of decline. The UK has been like a jet firing on only one engine.
“Levelling Up and this White Paper is about ending this historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery.
“This will not be an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight, but our 12 new national levelling up missions will drive real change in towns and cities across the UK, so that where you live will no longer determine how far you can go,” Mr. Gove said.
The 12 missions are:
1. By 2030, pay, employment and productivity will have risen in every area of the UK, with each containing a globally competitive city, with the gap between the top performing and other areas closing.
2. By 2030, domestic public investment in Research & Development outside the Greater South East will increase by at least 40% and at least one third over the Spending Review period, with that additional government funding seeking to leverage at least twice as much private sector investment over the long term to stimulate innovation and productivity growth.
3. By 2030, local public transport connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing.
4. By 2030, the UK will have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for the majority of the population.
5. By 2030, the number of primary school children achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths will have significantly increased. In England, this will mean 90% of children will achieve the expected standard, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas will have increased by over a third.
6. By 2030, the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK. In England, this will lead to 200,000 more people successfully completing high-quality skills training annually, driven by 80,000 more people completing courses in the lowest skilled areas.
7. By 2030, the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) between local areas where it is highest and lowest will have narrowed, and by 2035 HLE will rise by 5 years.
8. By 2030, well-being will have improved in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing.
9. By 2030, pride in place, such as people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community, will have risen in every area of the UK, with the gap between the top performing and other areas closing.
10. By 2030, renters will have a secure path to ownership with the number of first-time buyers increasing in all areas; and the government’s ambition is for the number of non-decent rented homes to have fallen by 50%, with the biggest improvements in the lowest performing areas.
11. By 2030, homicide, serious violence, and neighbourhood crime will have fallen, focused on the worst-affected areas.
12. By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.
Source: Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities