Lancashire has taken its furthest step yet towards securing a devolution deal with the government after a minister committed to reaching an agreement with the county.
It follows a visit to Lancashire by a delegation of Whitehall officials who met with officers from Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council in May. As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed at the time, the trio of so-called top-tier authorities put forward a plan at that summit to create a combined county authority (CCA) to oversee any new powers and cash that Lancashire is ultimately granted.
In the wake of those initial discussions, levelling up minister Dehenna Davison has now written to the three “expressing her commitment to draw up a devolution deal” on that basis, county council leader Phillippa Williamson told a full council meeting on Thursday. She described the development as “fantastic news” and said that it “represents the start of a new phase of dialogue with government that will help us to deliver all our aspirations for first-class services for our residents, for businesses and for visitors”.
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The Tory leader added: “The three upper-tier councils working together, formally, as members of a combined county authority will help us all make better decisions across the county – and that can only be a good thing. If a devolution deal is agreed, we will all be well-placed to secure more funding and more powers, building on what is agreed over the next few months.
“I committed in June that, whilst government policy is that the combined county authority is made up of upper-tier councils [only], our districts would have a voice in any new arrangement. This commitment remains in place, as does our ambition to deliver the priorities set out in our Lancashire 2050 framework, which relies on all 15 councils working together.”
The LDRS reported last month that the proposed shape of the embryonic deal could yet ensure a few more twists and turns in Lancashire’s eight-year journey towards a devolution settlement, as result of disquiet amongst at least some of the county’s dozen district authorities.
That has arisen because the plan for a CCA is at odds with an agreement reached between all 15 Lancashire councils in January 2022 for a one-member-one-vote governance arrangement incorporating each local authority in a joint committee or similar arrangement.
South Ribble Borough Council leader Paul Foster told the LDRS that the change was “undemocratic”, while his Lancaster City Council counterpart Phillip Black said that it amounted to the second-tier authorities being “frozen out”.
It is understood that all eight Labour-led distinct authorities opposed the move to varying degrees. However, the top-tier trio – two of which, Blackpool and Blackburn, are themselves Labour-run – argued that the government’s rules meant it was the only route to a deal of any significance.
The most extensive devolution deal is already out of reach for Lancashire, because of its refusal to agree to the creation of an elected mayor and the more traditional type of combined authority, on which all councils in the patch could sit. A full business case will now be prepared for government approval and the final deal will require the agreement of the three constituent top-tier councils, as well as the green light from Parliament.
County Cllr Williamson told Thursday’s County Hall meeting that there was “much detail to work through over the summer months”. “But I can assure you we here – and with our friends in Blackpool and Blackburn – will be working hard with government officials to secure the best deal for Lancashire and at the same time meeting the government’s proposed timetable of agreeing the devolution deal by the autumn.”
In a statement issued after the county council meeting, Blackpool Council leader Lynn Williams, said she was “pleased we are moving closer to a first devolution deal for Lancashire”. “Getting over the start line on devolution will allow us to access additional funding and support from national government and decide how this is used locally to tackle local issues and opportunities for the good of the people of Blackpool and Lancashire.
“We have shared priorities across Lancashire which are articulated in our 2050 vision. I look forward to further conversations with our partners in Lancashire and government about how we can turn these shared priorities into reality and deliver more of the things our residents and businesses need”.
Blackburn with Darwen Council leader Phil Riley added: “Now that our devolution journey has begun, I really hope government prioritises Lancashire. Our residents deserve the very best and this can only help us deliver on our ambitions.”
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