Devolution deal could demand council mergers

A major overhaul of Lancashire’s councils is needed if the county is to secure extra powers and cash through a devolution deal, leaders have been told.

Officials from the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) informed a meeting of Lancashire’s 15 council leaders that a “revised” local authority structure would be expected, Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver has revealed.
Depending on any future agreement, that could result in all of the region’s councils – county, district and unitary – disappearing altogether in their current form.
The region would also have to create a new combined authority and establish an elected mayor – similar to the roles formed in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region – who would ultimately be responsible for the devolved arrangements.
That prospect has previously derailed devolution hopes after causing disquiet amongst some Lancashire districts.   Wyre and Ribble Valley councils have temporarily walked away from talks at various points, while Fylde officially withdrew from discussions two years ago – and has never returned.
But the additional request for a restructure of the region’s existing councils – while seemingly intended to streamline membership of any combined authority – also has the potential to add another layer of complexity to the devolution negotiations, which have now dragged on for almost four years.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that questions were raised at this week’s meeting about the effectiveness of a combined authority if it included 15 separate voices.   Previous discussions have faltered over whether individual councils would have a veto on the new body, which could have powers over issues such as transport, skills and strategic planning – and attract an extra £30m a year in government funding for the next three decades.
According to the Local Government Chronicle magazine, MHCLG officials have stipulated that any new single-tier councils created in Lancashire – similar to those currently in place in Blackpool and Blackburn – should cover populations of between 300,000 and 700,000 people.
That could lead to the creation of anything between two and five standalone councils across the county – provided the government offers some flexibility over the population size of each authority.   The LDRS understands that concerns expressed about the prospect of reorganisation at this week’s meeting cut across party lines.
But County Cllr Driver described the latest discussions as “constructive”.
“We understand that the Secretary of State would expect simplified governance arrangements for the combined authority, which means a revised local government structure in Lancashire.   Discussions about the way forward are set to continue,” he said.
There was consternation amongst district councils last month after it emerged that the then Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry MP had held a meeting with the leaders of the three top-tier authorities – Blackpool, Blackburn and Lancashire County councils – at which they proposed a combined authority consisting just of that trio, with County Hall representing the districts as a “convenor”.    The idea was rejected by the government, which insisted all councils must sign up to the plans.
However, there is no such requirement for unanimity over reorganisation.   Ministers said last year that local opinion would merely have to be “coalescing” around a particular option.
Reaction so far from the district councils to the latest proposals has been limited.    But West Lancashire Council leader Ian Moran said the government’s demand for reorganisation was far from definitive.
“They told us we should have a good look at it, but didn’t say we absolutely had to reorganise.
“Devolution is supposed to be about power coming back down to the people, not being sucked to the centre in Preston.   It shouldn’t be about taking services further away from the people.
““If we have to merge any of the districts, then that is something for the districts themselves to decide.
“Senior civil servants have said that any combined authority should be based on local economic drivers – and ours are over towards Liverpool and Manchester.   So whatever we do has got to be right for West Lancashire,” Cllr Moran said.
However, in South Ribble, fellow Labour council leader Paul Foster threw his weight behind the ideas discussed with government officials.
“We completely support the idea of a combined Lancashire authority and an elected mayor of Lancashire.
“We feel that there are clearly massive economic benefits to these proposals, which we hope can now progress with the pace and intensity needed to make an ambitious goal into a working reality.
“The people of Lancashire deserve the very best services, the very best representation and the very best facilities – whether that’s social care, leisure, libraries, refuse collections, roads, transport, the lot.
“Now more than ever, we need to pull together to realise our collective strengths to really deliver for the people of Lancashire and both myself and my cabinet are adamant we can, and will, do that,” Cllr Foster.
Blackburn, Burnley. Rossendale and Pendle councils last year proposed an East Lancashire standalone authority.   But Burnley and Pendle have since backed away from the idea after the councils changed political control at the local elections.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service contacted all of Lancashire’s 12 district councils, Blackpool Council and the MHCLG for comment.
The standalone councils in Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen are responsible for all local authority services delivered in their areas.
Across the rest of the region, Lancashire County Council delivers major services such as social care, schools and highways.   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.
The two-tier system would be likely to 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 current district and standalone authorities.
Lancashire County Council currently has an annual budget of £844m, overseen by 84 county councillors.   The net yearly budget of the 12 districts adds up to around £160m – but there is a membership of more than 560 councillors across the second-tier authorities.

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