How will the ongoing saga of unitarisation in the North-West shape Lancashire’s future?
By Rob Chilton, Account Executive
Moving away from a two-tier to a unitary form of local governance seems to be an inevitability across the nation. Whilst large parts of England still fall within two-tier ‘county and district’ areas, these are gradually becoming fewer in number.
Here in the North-West, the decline has been even more gradual than most. After the Local Government Act of 1972, the whole of the region, along with the rest of the UK, had district councils with county councils above them.
The frequent conflict between Margaret Thatcher’s government and the Labour-dominated urban county councils ensured that, for Merseyside and Greater Manchester at least, this system did not last very long. Both county councils were abolished as part of the 1985 Local Government Act, which also famously abolished the Ken Livingstone ‘fiefdom’ of Greater London Council. The existing districts within those areas became unitary authorities, which they remain to this day. Most of the joint committees set up to replace the police, fire, transport, and waste functions of the county councils have since been subsumed into the relevant combined authorities.
The Local Government Commission for England, set up by John Major’s government in 1992, led to the creation in 1998 of four new unitary councils in the North West, all of which broke away from their respective counties to ‘go it alone’. These were Warrington and Halton in Cheshire, and Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire.
In 2009, Gordon Brown’s government abolished the remaining Cheshire authorities and created two unitary authorities of Cheshire East and Cheshire West & Chester, thereby ducking the creation of what would undoubtedly have been a Conservative-dominated Cheshire unitary (though recent elections have cast doubt on whether that would ultimately have been the case).
Finally, plans have just been announced for the creation of two unitary authorities in Cumbria, which are currently being legally challenged by the Labour-led County Council. Since a county-wide unitary could potentially replicate the existing Labour-Lib Dem coalition administration, whereas the government’s proposed arrangements will likely create at least one Conservative-run authority, this rather belated controversy is hardly surprising.
This leaves only the non-unitarised bulk of Lancashire remaining under the two-tier structure.
As a county with a strong identity, with the County Council dating back to 1889 (unlike Cumbria, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside, which were all creations of the 1972 Act), the unitarisation of Lancashire presents more emotions and complications than the surrounding counties. There has generally been a strong internal loyalty at County Hall, even to the point of taking John Major’s government to the High Court over their assumption that all council areas will move to unitary status.
However, my time spent living and working in Rossendale demonstrated to me there was very little love for the diktats of ‘county’ or ‘Preston’, even when the councils were controlled by the same party. That said, there are also severe practical problems in terms of getting 15 separate councils to agree a common way forward.
This problem has manifested itself rather sharply in the recent debate over the future governance of Lancashire. The government has now made it clear that unitarisation is on the horizon for everyone, whether they want it or not, and that Whitehall funding is tied to joint bids and common structures. Inevitably, Lancashire County Council has pushed for county-wide funding bids, and a united combined authority, which has been received with distinctly mixed enthusiasm in the districts. A meeting of all 13 County and district Leaders last year to discuss a joint bid to government resulted in four of them storming out of the meeting, and subsequently accusing the County Leader, Cllr Geoff Driver, of ‘insulting’ them and failing to consult on the contents of the bid.
Clearly cognisant of the fact that unitarisation is coming, and that a single county-wide unitary authority is out of the question due to population and geography, Lancashire County Council has proposed to the government that all local authorities in Lancashire (including the two existing unitaries) be replaced by three large unitary authorities. A Central Lancashire Council would combine the old Preston, Chorley, South Ribble, and West Lancashire councils. North West Lancashire Council would consist of the old Blackpool, Fylde, Wyre, Lancaster, and Ribble Valley Councils. Whilst an East Pennine Council would merge the existing councils of Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Pendle, Hyndburn, and Rossendale.
This, inevitably, sparked much discussion and disagreement in itself. A proposal supported by Lancaster City Council, seeking a merger with two councils in South Cumbria to create a unitary authority spanning Morecambe Bay, was torpedoed by Lancashire County Council before it was even properly considered. Even in councils where there was initial agreement to Lancashire’s proposals, changes in administration after this year’s elections have resulted in changed positions (Burnley and Pendle being examples). New Conservative County Leader Cllr Phillipa Williamson announced that Lancashire has ‘no appetite’ for a regional ‘metro mayor’ model, in a rebuttal to a Lancashire MP from her own party who has advocated for such a system. Her statement has since been contradicted by the Leaders of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen’s unitary councils, who have released a joint statement saying precisely the opposite.
The government, in their turn, possibly sensing the political divisions within the County and within their own local Party, seem to have kicked the can further down the street and chosen to focus their energies on finalising the unitarisation of other counties such as North Yorkshire, Somerset, and Cumbria. Whilst there is no indication that the new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, is any less enthusiastic about the streamlining of local government than his predecessors, he has already given a clear indication that housing supply is a top priority focus for him and, so far, has merely stated that he wishes to ‘empower’ local government.
Given the furore that has engulfed far smaller areas than Lancashire, there is a clear risk that Lancashire will have its future governance model imposed upon it by the government, as has happened in some other areas. Since this would not make for an ideal working environment in any of the future authorities, it is incumbent on the current Leaders in Lancashire to find a workable solution and find one fast.