It looks as if effective devolution for Lancashire is as far away as ever. Remember the show of unity around the Lancashire 2050 document signed up to by all fifteen councils last winter? Well that unified spirit has been shattered by a controversial proposal that would see Lancashire County Council, Blackpool, and Blackburn with Darwen form a “combined county authority”. Places like Preston would “have a voice” according to the County leader Philippa Williamson.
Unsurprisingly the city of Preston is underwhelmed at the prospect of pressing its nose to the window while the top tier authorities gorge on a devolution package. South Ribble have called it a breach of trust.
Apparently Levelling Up Minister Dehenna Davison is coming up shortly to discuss it, so we must take it fairly seriously. Not that Dehenna will be around for long, she’s leaving parliament next year to have a “life outside politics”. Lucky her, meanwhile, those of us who care about Lancashire raising its game, need to reflect on how we got here.
The Red Rose county is now nearly surrounded by areas with devolution deals. To Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region, we can now add Westmoreland to the north and North Yorkshire to the east. Meanwhile between Lancaster and Chorley we have fifteen councils. Its like Germany before Otto von Bismarck. Whilst I don’t favour a moustachioed militarist intervening, it does require some banging together of heads, or a realisation of what is in the best interests of business and people in the great county to make progress.
The sticking points on going for the big devolution deals grasped, in particular by Greater Manchester have been threefold. The government’s insistence that in exchange for money and power there must be an accountable directly elected mayor on top of a Combined Authority and wholesale local government reorganisation.
The county, unitary councils and district councils have never been able to agree, and one thought they had settled on Lancashire 2050 as a way forward together.
Now the county seems to have hitched up with Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen in a plan they know won’t keep the others on board. Perhaps the government are behind this, after all County Hall is in Tory hands. It may be an attempt to force the districts into line or an expression of exasperation that will leave the county with an odd structure.
DON’T MESS WITH THE MAYORS
The idea was that elected mayors would have more profile that council leaders. That’s certainly been the case with Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester in recent days.
Houchen, the Tory poster boy of the North, is in a big battle with Labour over his approach to regenerating his patch. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has set up a government independent review into a scheme to transform the old Redcar steelworks. Labour’s Andy McDonald claimed in the Commons (but not outside) that corruption was involved in deals with the private sector. Houchen says Labour are jealous because they did nothing for the area and he’s getting things done. Jen Williams, who did such a sterling job at the Manchester Evening News is on the case with her new employer, the Financial Times.
Meanwhile Andy Burnham has been expressing his frustration with Labour spin doctors in London who he is accusing of negative spinning against his plans to get things done in Greater Manchester. I’m not clear to me what the policy differences are (Andy’s rent freeze idea?) but Starmer needs Burnham for his northern push for seats and peace talks are needed.