Lancashire to shake up
Council streamlining plan to unlock funds
Council streamlining plan to unlock funds
Lancashire risks being “sold down the river” by rapid local government reorganisation, according to the county council’s Labour opposition.
Azhar Ali, leader of the Labour group on Lancashire County Council, believes Conservative proposals to streamline Lancashire’s 15 district councils into three unitaries could result in thousands of people losing their jobs when it is not clear who would pick up the bill for redundancies and pensions.
He says the reorganisation, demanded by the government in return for additional powers and funding, should be a three or four-year project, not put through in weeks, as the Conservative leadership hopes.
Instead, according to Ali, government should give district councils money now to cope with years of austerity-driven cuts and coronavirus priorities, including the end of the furlough period, the need to re-open schools, the plight of elderly people isolated during lockdown, and the possibility of a second wave of infection. Last week parts of Lancashire went back into lockdown.
“The government should focus on putting money into district councils now,” said Ali. “We need jam today, not tomorrow.”
Last week Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver put forward a proposal to abolish the 12 district councils and two unitary authorities and replace them with three bodies to deliver services. He favours a reorganisation that would lead to councils for the central and southern parts of the county, the west and the east.
The county council itself would be dissolved, to be replaced by a combined authority with an elected mayor. That would mean Lancashire following areas such as Merseyside and Greater Manchester in gaining a devolution deal that would bring more powers over areas like transport and regeneration, and funding said to be worth £30 million a year over 30 years.
Driver believes the current fragmented system in Lancashire has held it back in winning a deal from government and that ministers have made clear a combined authority and elected mayor are “key vehicles” for their “levelling-up” agenda to tackle economic inequality across the country.
He wants to put an outline business case to government by the end of this month in order for Lancashire to be included in the next tranche of devolution deals. But an agreement in principle between the 15 leaders – with Ali also supporting a combined authority and, “reluctantly”, an elected mayor – has begun to unravel.
Pendle Council’s deputy leader David Whipp believes an elected mayor “would be unaccountable to residents in Pendle, with a combined authority hoovering up power away from local residents”.
Burnley Council has rejected any form of reorganisation as a principle for a combined authority. Last week Ribble Valley Council said any reorganisation should only take place once the government has published its promised local government white paper, and even then only with the backing of a local referendum.
Driver, describing himself as “pragmatic and realistic”, knows he has a task ahead if he is to win the support of both his own council and the district councils. He wants to avoid the four years of squabbling that held up Yorkshire’s devolution deal, where disputes have broken out again over local government reorganisation.
He acknowledges the criticism that “some of the numbers don’t look very high” when it comes to the funding that might be devolved, but insists he has a chance of doing a good deal with government. Having almost eliminated a £200 million deficit since the Conservatives took over the county council in 2017, Driver believes he has demonstrated it can cope with its challenges and is on the side of its residents. Many of them have recently voted Conservative for the first time.
“If Boris wants to hang on to them he has to protect the livelihood of those people who put their trust in him and I believe he will,” said Driver.
But Ali accused the Conservatives in Lancashire of “pulling the wool over our eyes while cutting services”. Pointing to the lack of money specifically for the county in last month’s announcement of a £600 million investment in transport for the north, he said: “The Conservatives have failed miserably to deliver for Lancashire.”
Image: Lancashire Country Council offices in Preston, where the political row over devolution plays out.