District councils left in the dark over attempt to break Lancashire's devolution deadlock

Could County Hall represent the views of the 12 districts that sit beneath it on any new combined authority?
Could County Hall represent the views of the 12 districts that sit beneath it on any new combined authority?

A meeting between Lancashire’s three most senior local authority leaders and the government to discuss a devolution deal for the county has sparked anger from several district councils in the region - who say they knew nothing about it.

The leaders of the so-called top-tier authorities - Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council - met the Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry at Westminster on Tuesday.

The trio had written a letter in advance of the gathering which is reported to have proposed a new type of combined authority for the region - and floated the prospect of a directly-elected mayor.

But under the proposed arrangements, Lancashire’s 12 district councils would be represented by the county council, which would act as what is described as a “convenor” for the smaller authorities.

The idea has already been branded “bizarre” by one district leader, while others have criticised the fact that they were not even invited to the discussions.

Attempts to secure a devolution deal for the county have dragged on for four years - and have often been beset by the complexities of satisfying the demands of 15 different local authority voices.

Several districts made it clear that they did not want to see an elected mayor and some expressed concern over how their interests would be secured in any overarching combined authority.

Wyre and Ribble Valley councils have both walked away from the process at various points, while Fylde Council formally withdrew two years ago - and has never returned.

The district authorities were concerned over the special governance structure which would be required to administer the powers and the cash that comes with a devolution deal from government - which usually amounts to £900m over the course of 30 years.

South Ribble Council leader Paul Foster described it as “deeply regrettable” that the latest discussions had not involved second-tier councils like his.

“For them to then state that they wish to act as our ‘convenor’ is utterly bizarre, devoid of any detail and without our consent or knowledge. They certainly don’t speak for South Ribble.

“I am in dialogue as we speak with other district leaders and our response will most certainly be robust. We only held a meeting with [county council leader] Driver some two weeks ago and he totally forgot to mention this meeting to any of us when we discussed options moving forward.”

Wyre Council leader David Henderson said the meeting in London this week had come as a "complete surprise" to the districts.

"It had been agreed that a meeting between Jake Berry and all the authorities in Lancashire was to be convened to discuss the merit of a combined authority. "The district leaders will now have to consider a suitable way forward,” Cllr Henderson said."

Meanwhile, Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said the authority welcomed moves towards a combined authority to provide “real benefits to the county”, but added:

“As a city and council, we support the notion of an elected mayor for Lancashire but sufficient powers and funding would be required to ensure devolution delivers the necessary changes to improve our communities.

“We believe that the future structure of local government in Lancashire should form part of the discussions around a combined authority and will continue to work enthusiastically with partners to make this a reality.”

In Fylde, council leader Sue Fazackerley expressed her "disappointment" that the districts were not informed about the meeting.

“In fact, we have still not been officially told that it took place and I learned about it via another district leader who had bumped into the leader of Blackpool the day before he went to London.

“It was made perfectly clear to Lancashire County Council by the district leaders that, if the notion of a Lancashire Combined Authority was to progress, any discussion with government must include district representation.

“Fylde voted to withdraw from involvement in a Lancashire Combined Authority some time ago so any future involvement would have to be discussed by the full council,” Cllr Fazackerley added.

In a statement, the leaders of the three top-tier councils said: "We met with the Rt Hon Jake Berry MP to understand how we can get the benefits of a devolution deal for Lancashire. We had a very productive conversation."

Mr. Berry is reported to have committed to “progressing discussions” over the coming weeks.

DEVOLUTION DELAYED

Lancashire has been operating a shadow combined authority since June 2016, but agreement to put it on a formal footing has proved elusive. Following the 2017 general election, the government offered shire counties like Lancashire the chance for devolution without an elected mayor - but the move was not enough to persuade all 15 councils.

County Cllr Driver and Blackpool Council leader Simon Blackburn have previously expressed concern that Lancashire is lagging behind neighbouring Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City region, which both struck devolution deals several years ago.

The latest proposal for the county council to act as a convenor mirrors a suggestion made by County Cllr Driver in an interview in 2017, in which he put forward the idea of a "strategic authority" - to address concerns he had over the governance structures of the proposals that were on the table at the time.

“There could be a halfway house - some sort of strategic authority, led by the county council as the big player, where the district councils have a say, but responsibility for the key issues would be to the county council,” County Cllr Driver said at the time.

“I’m not sure we could...carry out our statutory responsibilities if we’re having to consult other people and get their approval about what it is we want to do.”