Lancashire ready to punch its weight again

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Twenty years after standing down as the Leader of Lancashire County Council, DIB boss Frank McKenna reflects on the county’s place in the Northern Powerhouse – and why he believes Lancashire is ready to start to punch its weight again.

Twenty Years ago, this month, I was elected as Leader-elect of Lancashire County Council. Having been elected to County Hall twelve years earlier, I had been involved in a whole range of exciting initiatives, led by arguably the most influential local authority in the north of England.

Under the leadership of Louise Ellman, Lancashire had become the powerhouse council in the region. She had established an economic development company, Lancashire Enterprises which invested in hundreds of the county’s businesses, created thousands of jobs, and saved Leyland DAF.

We owned a property in Brussels, providing us with access to EU commissioners, enabling the negotiation of significant investment for funding  of regeneration projects across the county.

We set up the most successful Welfare Rights unit in the country, raising millions of pounds for the poorest in our community through unclaimed benefits.

In terms of ‘big beasts’, Lancashire had its fair share. Having led the County for eleven years, from 1981, Ellman went on to represent a Liverpool constituency in parliament. Joan Humble did the same In Blackpool, whilst Josie Farrington, Ruth Henig, and Tony Greaves were given an opportunity to serve in the House of Lords.

Lancashire was the driving force behind the establishment of the North West Regional Assembly – a forerunner to a regional parliament, when New Labour was still flirting with the idea of genuine devolution in England.

That I became leader of this influential organisation was as much to do with the fact that I was the Deputy Leader at Lancashire as it did my own political acumen, I’m sure.

So, it was from a position of strength that I looked forward to taking on the role of leader at County Hall – with some big plans to continue the ambitious, entrepreneurial, and progressive work that the county had become known for. 

There was no doubt in my mind that I could maintain Lancashire’s momentum. 

But then, the wheels came off. In the background, a cabal of Labour members in West Lancashire had started to agitate for a police investigation into the party’s election returns at the 1997 General Election campaign. They claimed that, as agent, I was responsible for overspending on the campaign, and as such was guilty of election fraud.

The rumours of wrongdoing circulated for a year or so, with satirical magazine Private Eye featuring the allegations against me on a regular basis. But, both I and party officials, were confident that the accusations were bogus, and that the investigation would fizzle out.

Indeed, given that boundary changes implemented in 1997 had made West Lancashire a ‘safe’ Labour seat, and the fact that the Conservative opposition had not raised any complaints, it seemed likely that the police would recognise an internal party spat when they saw one.

However, following an intensive enquiry both myself and my council colleague, John Fillis, were eventually charged with ‘conspiracy to defraud’ – and just days after securing the Lancashire Labour leadership, my political career came crashing down.

It was a personal tragedy for me. But it was also, in hindsight, the beginning of the end for Lancashire as one of the most influential local government organisations in the country.

The idea that a radical devolution programme could have been rolled out without Lancashire’s involvement would have been unthinkable back then. The Northern Powerhouse would have had the county at its heart rather than the peripheral player it finds itself to be today. And, on the national stage, bids for Channel 4, the relocation of government departments to Preston and investment into emerging industry sectors would have been far more prevalent.

Through the business lobbying organisation Downtown in Business which I established in 2003, I have maintained an involvement in the North West and beyond- but Lancashire has been a bit part player in the major developments taking place during the twenty-first century. But signs are things could be about to change.

Those who succeeded me and the team I had in place back in 2001 were not prepared for leadership. They were reluctant to take the roles in the first place. They were certainly not going to take the sort of calculated risks that Louise and her team took in establishing an economic development company and purchasing a property in Brussels. Equally, they didn’t have the bandwidth to be at the centre of the regional and devolution agenda.

Now though, you can see a new ambition emerge at County Hall and among stakeholders. The Capital of Culture bid, the Eden of the North Project and the increasingly impressive work of Marketing Lancashire are all signs that the county is ready to start to punch its weight again.

It is also good to see a greater appetite for collaboration. The All- Party Parliamentary Group, for example, will offer the county an influential voice in Whitehall. I expect Lancashire to be a far more influential voice in the coming years.

And what of the allegations against me and co-accused John Fillis, now the Deputy Leader of the Lancashire Labour group? On day one of the trial at Chester Crown Court in 2003, the judge threw out the case, stating that the courtroom was not the place to resolve internal party- political rivalries.

Had Lancashire Constabulary taken the same view, my journey- and the county’s- could have been very different indeed.

This article first appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post

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