Will Brexit kill off Lancashire devolution?

Peter Rankin
Peter Rankin

Hopes of a pioneering Lancashire devolution deal being in place before 2020 could be killed off by Brexit, Preston’s council leader has said.

Coun Peter Rankin fears the government’s pre-occupation with EU negotiations means the county’s bid could be “kicked into the long grass.”

And with local authorities facing a budget cliff-fall in the coming years, time is quickly running-out.

The Preston City Council leader and counterparts from across the county submitted proposals for a Devo Lancs deal last year.

But a cloud of uncertainty has hovered over it since with wavering support and confusion as to whether a mayor will be a prerequisite of the deal.

Meanwhile, May’s elections saw new leaders installed, meaning the combined authority has had to re-evaluate if devolution remains a priority.

Coun Rankin has issued a rallying call for ministers to forge ahead and provide meaningful feedback on the initial proposal as he and colleagues wait for a response.

He said: “This whole thing waxes and wanes, one minute we’re encouraged and we think we’re going to get the deal and the next minute your heart sinks because we’re told ‘we’re thinking about it.’

“They’ve had a long time to think about our proposals, but there has been an election since and coming up to the election nothing much happened.

“It’s been remarkable how well the majority of the local authorities (in Lancashire) have been working together.”

Following combined authority lead Coun Simon Blackburn (leader of Blackpool Council) asking the Department for Communities and Local Government for clarification on the devolution proposal, county leaders were expecting some feedback last week but are still waiting.

Coun Rankin said: “Local authorities are facing the edge of a cliff in two years time because a lot of us, quite simply, won’t have the money that we have at the moment. We’re all struggling but we’re managing. But in two years time, maybe three, we’ve got real problems.

“We need to be working together to look at services to share. We haven’t been doing enough of that, we share our revenue and benefits service with Lancaster, for example, and we’re making savings on that, but that’s just two authorities, looking across Lancashire there’s so much more we can do.

“I’m batting for Preston but Lancashire is absolutely crucial and it’s important that we work together.”

Elsewhere in the North West, Greater Manchester and Liverpool have streaked ahead with their own devolution deals, fast-tracked under previous chancellor George Osborne with directly-elected mayors installed.

In Lancashire, authorities have been split on whether a mayor is required, leading to assumptions an agreement remains a remote possibility.

But Coun Rankin said this may not be the case and a deal without the mayor could be back on the table.

“The message seems to be coming forward there is some kind of deal (available) and we don’t need a mayor, but we’re not sure,” he said.

“Our proposals are on the minister’s desk, we need a bit more feedback than just “oh, maybe” because a lot of us have put a lot of time into this.

“There are a number of issues still, we need to know whether we’ve got everyone on-board.”

Even if the combined authority leaders can reach a consensus and the mayor or no mayor issue can be ironed out, Brexit could provide a further speed-bump.

And this, Coun Rankin explains, is a major concern with local councils facing major changes in the way they receive funds from central government, with their revenue support grant disappearing by 2020.

“The Government is fixated on Brexit and I think devolution will be kicked into the long grass, that’s my big concern. Government is so tied up (with Brexit).

“We have seen in the last week that the Conservatives are starting to fight amongst themselves, the Prime Minister is not secure, we need them to be focused not just on Brexit but on devolution.”

He added: “What we’ve been doing with the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership, that has been remarkably successful over the last two years, we’re much more bound into it. That has been a result of working together.

“I do get frustrated (with the delays), but then I remember we have managed to do good work with the LEP and that is something.”

If details of a Devo Lancs deal can not be agreed in the immediate future, the combined authority should not turn its back on partnership work, the council leader has therefore urged.
“We’re Lancashire authorities, let’s bat for Lancashire,” he said.

“It may be, in terms of devolution, we may just have to park things and wait for government to be in a better frame of mind.

“We’ve made a good impression with civil servants, they’ve seen how good a job we’ve made of City Deal and indeed I’ve said perhaps maybe we need to concentrate on City Deal because we know City Deal is working, let’s focus on that.

“But that is going against what I’ve always said about Lancashire.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say at the combined authority; ‘This is what we’ve achieved with City Deal, think of what we can do; an equivalent of City Deal for Lancashire.”