County Hall, Preston, seat of Lancashire County Council.

Local representatives have raised objections to plans from Lancashire County Council's Conservative administration for massive local government reorganisation across the county. At the end of July, Cllr Geoff Driver, leader of the County Council, announced plans to abolish the County Council and the 14 smaller district and unitary councils in Lancashire, including Lancaster City Council.

Under Cllr Driver's proposal, Lancashire would be split into three unitary authorities: Greater Blackpool in the north, Greater Blackburn in the southeast, and Central Lancashire in the southwest. Lancaster would be merged with Blackpool, Wyre, Ribble Valley, and Fylde in order to create Greater Blackpool Council.

Opposition to Cllr Driver's proposals has come thick and fast from across the county. Ribble Valley Council has demanded that any local government re-organisation be subject to a referendum. Meanwhile, Burnley Council, has declared that it has no confidence in Cllr Driver's leadership.

Cllr Driver wrote to the government with the proposal without seeking any input from the local councils in Lancashire, opposition county councillors, or local residents. Lizzi Collinge, Labour county councillor for Lancaster South East, described the move as ‘contempt for cooperation, negotiation, and democracy.’ Skerton Labour city councillor Phillip Black described the plans as running a ‘shredder’ through the existing arrangements. He said: ‘If [unitary authorities] are coming then we should have a say in what they look like, and I don't think "Greater Blackpool" is what most people around here are going to want their local government to look like.’

The proposed "Greater Blackpool" unitary authority (left) and the alternative "Bay Area" partnership between Lancaster, Barrow, and South Cumbria councils (right).

A unitary authority is a local council with a single tier responsible for all local government functions in that area. Currently, local government responsibilities in Lancashire are split across two tiers. For instance, students living in Lancaster University's Bailrigg campus are represented by the three University and Scotforth Rural Ward councillors on Lancaster City Council, as well as the county councillor for Lancaster South East Division. If Lancaster formed part of a Greater Blackpool Council, there would only be one tier of councillors. Based on the proposed size of a Greater Blackpool, it is likely that there would only be one councillor for the entire University campus and also some of the surrounding area, significantly reducing the representation of Lancaster students in local government. As parish and town councils are a lower tier of local government they wouldn't be affected by the proposed changes.

Unitarisation and combined authorities

Driver's merger proposal follows years of campaigning in Lancashire for the creation of a combined authority. A combined authority is where two or more local councils formally come together to offer joint services, without merging. Lancashire council leaders have agreed on the idea in principle since 2014, and since March 2016 Lancashire has operated a ‘shadow’ combined authority while waiting for authorisation from the government to set up a real one. Negotiations with the government stalled, however, before the idea was picked up again at the start of 2020.

Cllr Geoff Driver (right) with Eric Pickles, former Communities Secretary, in 2012 (photo by MHCLG, licenced CC BY-ND 2.0).

The Conservative government's ‘levelling up agenda’ has driven the most recent push for a combined authority with an elected mayor at its head. It is said that adopting this structure will enable Lancashire to access more funds from central government. In a June briefing, Lancashire County Council staff made clear to Cllr Driver's cabinet that a combined authority was not the only way to improve cooperation between Lancashire councils, and that ‘the creation of a combined authority, elected mayor and a devolution deal are separate from the issue of local government reorganisation.’

Lancashire Leaders, a group composed of Cllr Driver and the 14 other leaders of local councils in the county, agreed in principle on 10th June to support a combined authority and elected mayor, and that the organisation of local councils ‘may need some review’ in order to be ‘simplified’.

Everything changed on 15th July, when the local government minister Simon Clarke announced that unitarisation would be ‘a vital first step’ before councils could secure new devolution deals. Clarke argued,  ‘A move to unitarisation will streamline the delivery of good governance, place local government on a more sustainable financial and population footing, inject more accountability into our democratic structure, and save money that can be re-invested in those communities.’ The announcement will have major ramifications for England, not just Lancashire. The Financial Times reported it as the beginning of ‘the biggest reorganisation of English local government for 35 years’.

Driver drives a wedge

The same day, a contentious meeting of Lancashire Leaders drove a wedge into the negotiations over the combined authority and elected mayor proposal. According to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), some council leaders had objected to their logos being used on a post-COVID recovery plan, called the Greater Lancashire Plan, without their permission. Cllr Driver told the council leaders: ‘You could all stand outside in the pouring rain – and you would take all day to decide whether you were getting equally wet or if some of you had more shelter than others.’ An apology was demanded but was not forthcoming, after which four leaders left the meeting which soon collapsed, threatening, in the process, the ‘in principle’ June agreement over devolution.

The next day, Cllr Dr Erica Lewis, Labour leader of Lancaster City Council and county councillor for Lancaster South East, spoke about the disagreement in a meeting of the County Council. She told the council, ‘Cllr [Michael] Green said in his comments earlier that this document was endorsed by the district councils. That's not true. District councils are, in fact, deeply, deeply unhappy - both Labour and Conservative - about the manner in which the County Council has conducted itself in the development of this document.’ She continued, ‘This is a significant problem for this council going forward… At the moment, the County Council is doing just about everything it can to damage any relationships of trust that it has with district councils across the county… if you want to play a leadership role in a combined authority, then you're going to have to learn to work with others.’

Cllr Dr Erica Lewis, Labour Leader of Lancaster City Council, county councillor, and Lancaster University alumnus (photo via Lancaster Guardian).

Cllr Green responded with a rebuke about her tone: ‘We’ve heard she takes a different tone - we’ve seen that in action. And it’s a tone that shouldn’t be welcomed amongst the elected politicians of Lancashire.’ Earlier in the meeting, comments Cllr Lewis made opposing the merger of two scrutiny committees were preceded with an audible ‘Oh God’ when her name was called to speak. After she had finished, Cllr Tim Ashton commented: ‘Appalling behaviour by Cllr Lewis.’ In February, the BBC reported that several complaints had been made about ‘intimidation’ at the County Council and the ‘highly charged environment’ of meetings. In this instance, the hypocrisy of Cllr Green rebuking Cllr Lewis for her tone is evident.

On 28th July, the LDRS reported that the Conservative group on the County Council had agreed to Cllr Driver’s proposal to write to the government asking for permission to start forming the three unitary authorities. Cllr Lewis told the LDRS, ‘I’m disappointed, but not surprised that County Cllr Driver has both cancelled the next scheduled meeting of Lancashire Leaders and has decided to put forward this proposal without discussion with us.’

What the future holds

Lancaster City Council currently covers its namesake, Morecambe, Heysham, Carnforth, and various smaller settlements in the surrounding area. It is one of the 12 district councils in Lancashire. The current administration - a "co-operative alliance" of Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat councillors - has accepted the need for local government reorganisation, but has been progressing with its own plans for closer relations with South Lakeland and Barrow councils in Cumbria. Last year, the trio formed an economic partnership, and on 22nd July 2020 they held the first meeting of the Lancaster and South Cumbria Joint Committee, where they agreed a ‘Bay Area Prosperity and Resilience Strategy’.

If Cllr Driver's plans went ahead as written, it is unknown what would happen to Lancaster City Council's staff and council offices, or the people who serve as councillors. The City Council has a very close relationship with Lancaster University and has done since the latter's foundation. The City Council originally leased the Bailrigg site to Lancaster University, and funded it with an annual grant of £15,000 for the first nine years. Likewise, the County Council - which would also be abolished under Driver's plans - gave its name to County College, the largest undergraduate college at Lancaster. Until recently, the City Council sent representatives to sit on the governing bodies of Lancaster University, and it continues to work closely in a range of areas, from waste collection, to Eden Project North, to electoral registration. Many City Council staff and councillors are alumni of the University; Cllr Lewis herself completed a PhD at Lancaster in leadership and management, and was an elected LUSU student trustee. It is unlikely such a close and beneficial relationship could be maintained between the University community with a presumably more distant Greater Blackpool Council.

Driver's proposal comes as the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) begins a review of Lancaster City Council's ward sizes and the number of councillors it has. The review was announced in November 2019 by Cllr Lewis, and follows just five years after the last one (five years is the statutory minimum time between reviews, the average is ten). It is being carried out as several wards in Lancaster district are above their target population, and it is necessary for that imbalance to be addressed so that votes count more equally. The results of the review may be fruitless if a merger takes place before the next City Council election in 2023.

Spineless will endeavour to keep readers updated with developments over the creation of a unitary authority in Lancaster, which vitally affects the level of representation students have locally.

Featured image is Preston County Hall by Francis Franklin, licenced CC BY-SA 4.0.