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Eight of 12 Lancashire local leaders officially ask government to rethink devolution deal

Posted on - 2nd December, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Politics, Preston News
County Hall on Fishergate Hill in Preston city centre Pic: Tony Worrall
County Hall on Fishergate Hill in Preston city centre Pic: Tony Worrall

Eight of Lancashire’s 12 district councils have written to the government asking them to rethink the county’s devolution deal.

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The letter – seen by the Local Democracy Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) – was signed by the leaders of the seven Labour-run districts in Lancashire, along with the former Labour leader of Burnley Council who now heads the recently-formed coalition in control of the borough.

It was emailed to the levelling up minister, Jacob Young MP, last Friday – meaning that he is likely to have received it before arriving in the county over the weekend for a ceremony at Lancaster Castle, where the deal was provisionally done.

Read more: Renewed mayor calls in two hour debate over Lancashire devolution deal

As the LDRS revealed last week, the announcement of the long-awaited devolution settlement – as part of the chancellor’s autumn statement – was greeted with dismay by several district leaders.  They variously blasted the ‘level 2’ deal for being “unambitious” – and claimed that they were being locked out of the new Combined County Authority (CCA), the vehicle that will oversee the newly-devolved powers.

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The letter calls on the government to “pause and review” the devolution deal until it can be shown that it is supported by “a simple majority of the communities across Lancashire”.

The LDRS understands that that threshold would be determined by a tally of how many of Lancashire’s local authorities voted to back the deal – and not by a public referendum, which was a move suggested by South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster last week.

The nature of a level 2 deal – the second of the three categories of devolution on offer from the government – means that it has to be agreed only by the so-called “top-tier” councils in a county area.   In Lancashire, that is the Tory-run county council, and Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils, both controlled by Labour.

It was that trio that negotiated Lancashire’s agreement with the government and which is now in the process of seeking support from their own memberships in ratification votes this week before the proposal is put to the public in a consultation. It has so far been approved by County Hall and Blackpool Council, with Balckburn due to vote on Thursday evening.

The signatories of the letter – the leaders of Burnley, Chorley, Lancaster, Pendle, Preston, Rossendale, South Ribble and West Lancashire councils – state that “the current deal does not articulate any clear benefits for the county and conversely risks creating disunity, sowing division and breaking up the Red Rose County”.

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It adds:  “If the people of Lancashire are to support the transfer of powers and receipt of funding to a new body, the communities of our large and diverse county need to be able to understand and support the benefits that will be secured.

“These are self-evidently not apparent to us as their local democratic representatives [nor] to other stakeholders we engage with. We therefore believe that this will also be evident to our residents in due course.”

Under the deal, Lancashire will get local control over the adult education budget, some additional transport and compulsory purchase order powers –  and a £20m payout designed to stimulate growth.

Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley told the LDRS that the current split within Lancashire over devolution stemmed from a shift in the government’s own stance after the county’s 15 local authority leaders had themselves reached a stable consensus on the subject for the first time back in January 2022 – after what was then more than five years of failed attempts to do so.

However, the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper the following month set out a new menu of three devolution options – with the deepest ‘level 3’ deals requiring an elected mayor to oversee them – a prospect that parts of Lancashire had always baulked at and which had long stymied the county’s devolution hopes.

The move appeared to be a partial rowing back on then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suggestion the previous summer that seemingly entirely “flexible” deals would be offered to different counties –  prompting Lancashire to devise an ambitious blueprint for the transfer of £5.6bn worth of powers and resources from Whitehall, to be administered by a one-member-one-vote committee of all of the county’s council leaders.

“What changed?” asked Cllr Bradley, who chairs the Lancashire district leaders group, but was speaking to the LDRS in his capacity as Chorley leader.

“We [in Lancashire] hadn’t changed – it was the political context set by the government.

“If you’re going to devolve powers, [then also] devolve it to the people themselves to decide how they want to run it – because otherwise you’re still the arbiter.

“But they won’t do that – it’s classic civil service and central government, saying:  ‘We’re going to devolve power to you, but we’re going to tell you how to do it.’  It’s oxymoronic – devolution with strings and under constraints.

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“That isn’t going to work, particularly in Lancashire, where people are very independent-minded and very different,” Cllr Bradley added.

The letter concludes by requesting a meeting with the minister so that he can provide “suitable reassurance and specific evidence as to benefits for our areas”.

Speaking to the LDRS at the Lancaster ceremony on Sunday, Jacob Young said that the government had worked with local leaders to get “the best deal” for Lancashire.

He added:  “I think it’s really important that Lancashire is going to be able to make key decisions over things like transport, over adult education [and] over the things that matter to the business community here in Lancashire.”

Mr. Young also said that the government “stand[s] ready to work with Lancashire to deepen devolution”, but only within the current three-level framework, stressing that “we can’t have bespoke deals up and down the country”.

Read more: Lancashire devolution – what it means and what it could change

‘Don’t take districts’ dosh’

A particular bone of contention for Lancashire’s districts has been a clause in the devolution deal which transfers responsibility for delivery of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) – within the county council area – from the second-tier borough and city councils to the new CCA.

Lancashire has been allocated £55.5m from the government’s UKSPF pot, which is intended to make up for EU development funding lost to local areas after Brexit.   The funding is currently shared between the 12 district authorities and the standalone councils in Blackpool and Blackburn.

The cash has already been earmarked for a raft of projects, including, in Preston, low-cost broadband for disadvantaged communities and skills improvement programmes.

Under the devolved system, the CCA will take control of the UKSPF from 2025/26 – and that move is one of the concerns highlighted in the letter to Jacob Young.

While the deal document stresses that the change will “build on” existing district-led delivery arrangements and align with the aims of the long-term ‘Lancashire 2050′ strategy – which all 15 councils were involved in drawing up – Cllr Bradley says that uncertainty about what the future holds for the projects developed by the districts makes planning more difficult.

He added that the districts were better placed than County Hall to know the needs of local communities.

“Lancashire is very different in its parts and very diverse – and the way you deal with that is, if possible, by rolling some of these [regeneration] responsibilities down to a lower level – not [by doing] one-size-fits-nobody,” Cllr Bradley said.

However, during the meeting at Lancashire County Council where the devolution deal was ratified earlier this week, the authority’s leader, Phillippa Williamson, said that the EU funds that the UKSPF is replacing were always administered by County Hall – and successfully so.

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“We’ve heard absolute nonsense about UKSPF funding being taken away from districts.   No funding is being taken away from anyone – the opportunity for more funding from government is actually part and parcel of this deal.

“UKSPF has only been with the districts for one year…prior to that it was distributed by this council….[in a way to] ensure consistency of opportunity for residents right across this county,” County Cllr Williamson added.

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