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Preston and South Ribble leaders ‘side-lined’ in Lancashire devolution talks

Posted on - 4th June, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Politics, Preston Council, Preston News, South Ribble News
County Hall in Preston, home of Lancashire County Council
County Hall in Preston, home of Lancashire County Council

A delegation of Whitehall officials will travel to Lancashire this month to start preliminary talks over how the county can secure a long-awaited devolution deal.

The meeting with mandarins could prove the most significant step so far on Lancashire’s eight-year journey towards gaining the kind of extra powers and cash that have been enjoyed by its neighbours in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region throughout that time.

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However, South Ribble and Preston’s leaders have blasted the basis for the gathering after Lancashire County Council revealed that it would be putting on the table the creation of a combined county authority (CCA).

That is a new entity to oversee devolution arrangements in areas like Lancashire, where local government functions are split between county and district councils and there is no appetite to install an elected mayor.

Under government rules, only so-called top-tier councils can be members of a CCA – in Lancashire’s case, that would mean just the county council and the authorities covering Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen would sit at the top table.

Lancashire’s dozen district councils would not be part of the formal set-up, although County Hall leader Phillippa Williamson has said that she is committed to ensuring that they nevertheless have “a voice”.

While the majority of district leaders are so far keeping their powder dry over the plans – at least in public – the response from some in Central Lancashire points towards the re-opening of the divisions that have dogged Lancashire’s devolution attempts for the best part of a decade.

The proposal for a county combined authority for Lancashire – and the government-mandated exclusion of district councils from it – has left two Central Lancashire district leaders furious.

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South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster told the LDRS that in pursuing that path, Lancashire County Council Conservative leader Phillippa Williamson had “destroyed” the collaborative relationship with the 12 district authorities which had worked on the Lancashire 2050 strategy.

“It’s totally outside the terms of reference of the Lancashire 2050 joint working protocols that were established…and I am exceptionally disappointed in County Cllr Williamson and how the county [council] have not honoured previous agreements.

“They’ve completely sidelined the voice of all the districts of Lancashire,” Cllr Foster said.

He added that he wanted to see the type of gold standard devolution deal for Lancashire that agreeing to an elected mayor would secure.

That arrangement would also involve the creation of the more traditional type of combined authority in places like Greater Manchester, which – crucially – would also see district councils sitting on it as full, vote-wielding members.

Read more: New hospital to replace Royal Preston ‘highly likely to be in South Ribble’

Cllr Foster continued: “It smells to me of desperation – do the residents of Lancashire want a rushed, second-rate deal or do they want full devolution with an elected mayor representing them? I would suggest it’s the latter and County Cllr Williamson knows that as well.

“I do not know what the county council Conservative group fears so much about an elected mayor,” the Labour politician added, stressing that he was committed to the two-tier arrangements in Lancashire even if the position of a voted-in, county-wide mayor were to be created.

Meanwhile, Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown shared his neighbour’s frustrations over the CCA proposal – and the ambition of the deal that the county is trying to secure.

Councillor Matthew Brown
Councillor Matthew Brown

“I don’t feel that it’s as transformative as it could have been in terms of polices, resources and powers. I was making the argument for the public control of buses, like in Greater Manchester, and for funding for substantial new social housebuilding and fair work charters – and none of that was listened to.

“As district council leaders, I wonder what we’d actually be getting out of this, because it’s all going to be decided by [the top-tier authorities].

“It’s not a very good way to treat us – it’s like we’re often seen as passive recipients of what is being negotiated at a county level and that we’ve got to be thankful for it. But that’s not our attitude in Preston,” Cllr Brown added.

Read more: See more politics news from Preston and Lancashire

How Lancashire County Council responded

County council leader Phillippa Williamson said: “The government rules are clear that a combined county authority is to be made up of upper tier local authorities only.

“However, our district councils have a really important part to play and there is a commitment that they will have a voice in any new combined authority.

“They are an integrated and essential part of Lancashire 2050 and have been at the very heart of that project. It is with that ethos we move forward with these discussions.”

What do you think about the idea of a devolution deal for Lancashire? Let us know your views in the comments below

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