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Preston and South Ribble unimpressed with ‘lukewarm’ devolution deal

Posted on - 12th March, 2024 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Fylde News, Politics, Preston News, Ribble Valley News, South Ribble News, Wyre News
Lancashire Devolution deal
Lancashire Devolution deal

Two Lancashire district council leaders say their residents will be unimpressed with the county’s proposed devolution deal once it is implemented – in spite of the results of a consultation showing broad support amongst those who responded.

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Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown and his South Ribble Borough Council counterpart Paul Foster have renewed their criticism of the agreement, which was signed between the government and the leaders of Lancashire’s three top-tier local authorities back in November.

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That trio – Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council – this week heralded the outcome of a consultation process which saw between half and two thirds of respondents back each of the deal’s eight key policy areas.

Read more: Full list of 20 roads set for resurfacing in Preston, Chorley and South Ribble over the next year

However, Cllr Foster dismissed the notion that the results were representative of public opinion, noting that only 0.001 percent of Lancashire’s population engaged in the survey.

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Meanwhile, Cllr Brown said that a tweak to the wording of the deal to try to sooth the fears of several district leaders about control of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) shifting from councils like theirs to the soon-to-be formed county combined authority (CCA) had done nothing of the sort.

Under the agreement, the new body – which will oversee Lancashire’s devolved powers – will take on responsibility for distributing the £55.5m Lancashire has been allocated from the UKSPF,  a cash pot created to make up for EU development funding lost to the regions after Brexit.

The funding is currently shared between the 12 district authorities and the standalone councils in Blackpool and Blackburn – and is used to fund a raft of social and economic projects in each local area.

In a letter to the government when the deal was published late last year, eight district leaders expressed concern at seeing the cash transferred to what they described as the “unaccountable and inefficient” CCA model.

In a document outlining their response to all the issues raised during the consultation period, the top-tier authorities pledged to amend the proposed deal to make it clear that priorities for the UKSPF “will be evidence-based and funds will be directed towards areas of need”.

However, Cllr Brown told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that there was still no “firm commitment” about the future involvement of the districts in how the money will be used.

“This is being spent on great projects in Preston to tackle longstanding inequalities caused by the Tory government. It must remain totally under the control of districts who are closest to the communities they represent,” Cllr Brown said.

The city has allocated some of its £5.2m UKSPF share to projects focused on green energy, broadband access in less well-off communities and skills programmes for the unemployed.

Late last month – and before the consultation results were published –  West Lancashire Borough Council passed a motion put forward by leader Yvonne Gagen which specifically called for the fund to remain under district control.

Commenting on the additional UKSPF wording in the deal document, Burnley Council leader Afrasiab Anwar welcomed it, but warned:  “I’ll be continuing to monitor this issue to make sure that the areas that need extra support get it.   The UK Shared Prosperity Fund makes a huge difference in our borough and district councils need to have a say over where future funds are directed.”

Speaking to the LDRS after the consultation was published, but before the district leaders made their comments, Lancashire County Council leader Phillippa Williamson said she and her fellow top-tier leaders were “all quite comfortable with the process that we’ve put in place” for dealing with the UKSPF.

She also stressed that the future of the fund was, in any case, uncertain beyond next year – the point at which the CCA would gain control of it.  Its operation is confirmed until March 2025, but the government has not yet revealed whether it will continue, nor in what form.

The LDRS approached all 12 Lancashire districts for comment on the consultation outcome.

Lancashire devolution: Dividend or dud?

On the broader devolution deal, Preston’s Cllr Brown stressed his opinion that, in its current form, the agreement is “unambitious, undemocratic and will underwhelm the vast majority of Preston residents”.

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“We need genuine devolution with resources and powers and inclusion of all councils, whether upper or lower tier in Lancashire,” the Labour leader added.

Meanwhile, Cllr Foster, who has also previously condemned the changes to the UKSPF that will accompany the deal, characterised the almost 1,900 completed consultations as “a lukewarm response to, at best, a lukewarm proposal”.

“Perhaps Lancashire County Council could now accept that the deal is anything but what the residents actually desire.  The commitment to involving the Lancashire district leaders in any consultation or development of the proposals is also still at odds with reality – we are just not being engaged at any level.

“I wholly support a full devolution deal for Lancashire, but this just isn’t it. Perhaps the leadership at the county council could reflect on the woeful response to their consultation and reconsider what’s best for us all,” said Cllr Foster.

He has repeatedly pushed for a so-called “level 3” agreement – the most extensive of the three devolutions options on offer from the government – whereas Lancashire has signed up to a level 2 deal, under which it is entitled to fewer powers and cash.

That is because, unlike the deepest arrangement, level 2 does not require an area to have an elected mayor – the prospect of which has repeatedly divided Lancashire leaders during more than seven years of devolution discussions

Blackburn with Darwen Council leader Phil Riley told the LDRS that the county should be proud of the fact that it was now leading the pack of level 2 county deal-doers, having not even been named by the government in the list of areas with which Whitehall next planned to reach agreements when theLevelling Up White paper was published in February 2022.

He said it was heartening to receive a recent letter from a government minister referring to Lancashire now being part of the “combined authority family”

“I was quite gratified, really, because [it] indicated that…we have got over the finishing line,” Cllr Riley said.

However, all three top-tier leaders repeatedly stressed that they want this to be Lancashire’s first step on the road to devolution, with more to come.  But unless the county changes its stance on an elected mayor, any expansion would have to come either within the confines of what is on offer to level 2 areas or form the government changing its own position and conferring level 3 powers on Lancashire without a mayoral combined authority being in place.

Speaking to the LDRS at the devolution signing ceremony in Lancaster back in November, Levelling Up Minister Jacob Young indicated that the latter was not an option, saying the government could not permit “bespoke deals up and down the country”.

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