An opportunity to prosper for Lancashire missed?

There are fears the Fylde Coast could get left behind
There are fears the Fylde Coast could get left behind

The government has offered regions of England substantial devolution of powers and funding. While other areas have grabbed the opportunity with both hands, Lancashire has lagged behind, and now progress has stalled completely.

Lancashire will be left the ‘poor relation’ of the North after the collapse of talks around devolution of powers and funding.

Business leaders in the county have issued the stark warning as areas like Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands push ahead with extra powers and devolved funding.

Lancashire, on the other hand, has been left behind and now risks losing out altogether as four local councils – including Lancashire’s biggest council – announced they were pulling out of a deal for a combined authority to bid for devolved status.

Now Dawn Cheetham, president of the North and West of Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, has called for local councils to put aside their differences and focus on creating opportunities for Lancashire.

Under the government’s devolution deal, all 15 of Lancashire’s local authorities must bid together in a combined authority.

Dawn Cheetham

Dawn Cheetham

Last week Lancashire County Council announced it was pulling out of the negotiations. Three other councils – Fylde, Wyre and Ribble Valley – had already pulled out, making the bid effectively impossible.

Simon Blackburn, chairman of the combined authority bid and leader of Blackpool Council, described the situation as a great disappointment.

He said: “It really does pain me to see other areas getting significant amounts of money to invest in things like transport, housing and infrastructure and we will get left behind.”

Ms Cheetham echoed his calls, saying: “Working together as a collective ‘whole’ would make it easier to make key strategic decisions and deliver key investments that we need in the county. But progress has now ground to a halt.

Simon Blackburn

Simon Blackburn

“And now with Wyre, Fylde, Ribble Valley and now Lancashire County Council withdrawing from the discussions I fear Lancashire will be left the poor relation in the north.

“The Chamber will continue to lobby the local authorities and urge them to put their differences aside in the hope that Lancashire can truly become a more commercially minded county to maximise our opportunities and inspire future generations of businesses.”

She added: “Devolution of power and economic prosperity, in the north of England, go hand in hand.

“At the moment, the devolution agenda has focused, almost exclusively, on the five core city regions that have set up combined authorities – Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

“But economic growth potential does not lie exclusively, or even predominantly, within these city regions, Some of England’s highest economic growth rates are actually in our towns and smaller urban areas.

“Here in Lancashire, we have one of the biggest economies in the whole of the north. But we are a county of separate parts – one that hasn’t fully mastered the idea of working effectively together in the way that Manchester has.

“In Lancashire our existing local authority structure consists of 12 councils; two unitary authorities and a County Council – which historically hasn’t made it easy to work as a single unit.

“I would have liked to report that this is changing but unfortunately this isn’t the case.

The government has made Lancashire an offer of more devolved opportunities and powers, provided our local authorities come together in a new combined authority.”

History of the bid

In summer 2016, a shadow combined authority was formed in Lancashire with every local council apart from Wyre agreeing to work together to elect a mayor and make a devolution bid.

Jennifer Mein - who at that time was leader of Lancashire County Council - welcomed the agreement and predicted that an elected mayor could be in post by 2019.

At the start of 2017, Theresa May announced £70m of funding for Lancashire, as a ‘golden hello’ when the county joined Northern Powerhouse talks.

The bid had been put together as a joint Lancashire enterprise, and included a Manufacturing Research Centre at Samlesbury, a new conference centre for Blackpool and improvements for the M65.

Wyre Council had always been opponents of the deal, but earlier this year Fylde council and then Ribble Valley announced they would not support it - although at that point Lancashire County Council remained on board.

In October this year the government agreed that Lancashire could go ahead with its devolution bid without a metro mayor, after councils could not back the plan.