Published October 13, 2020 at 10:56
Fifteen to Three? Local Government Reorganisation
You may have seen recently some news that Lancashire might be getting something called a Combined Authority and an elected Mayor. You may have also seen that this is conditional upon there being some form of Local Government re-organisation (LGR) – that is a change in the number of Councils and their boundaries.
Currently in Lancashire there are fifteen Councils, the largest is Lancashire County Council (LCC). Then sitting underneath LCC there are twelve District Councils; these are Wyre, Fylde, West Lancashire, South Ribble, Chorley, Preston, Lancaster, Ribble Valley, Hyndburn, Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale. This is known as a two tier system where the top tier County Council provide some services (such as social care, highways) and the second tier District Councils provide other services (such as refuse collection, planning).
Lancashire also has two Unitary Councils and these are Blackpool Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council. These are single tier Councils which provide all the services in their local area.
The concept of a Lancashire Combined Authority (LCA) has been around for the last 4 years. However full agreement on how this could work between each Council could never be reached. Areas like Greater Manchester and Liverpool already have Combined Authorities and an elected Mayor.
A Combined Authority is in simply where Councils group together and agree to have a layer of local government (the Combined Authority) which sits above them over a larger geographical area and they give some of their existing powers to the combined authority. Often a devolution deal also goes with a Combined Authority and devolution is where Government give some of their powers to the Combined Authority along with funding.
So what has happened recently?
Lancashire may now be moving toward a Combined Authority as it seen as important in any recovery plan after the coronavirus pandemic. It is also more of a priority for the current Government than it was for the previous one. Councils in Lancashire have had some discussions about what any LCA will look like but if the stories in the news are to be believed then Councils agree with the concept of a Combined Authority for Lancashire although not all are fully supportive of a Mayor.
The Government have made it clear that permission for a Combined Authority for Lancashire will only be granted if Local Government is also reorganised. This is where many of the disagreements begin because most Councils have different views on what a potential reorganisation of Local Government should look like and there is disagreement on how quickly this should all happen.
The Government had been expected to publish what is called a White Paper in early Autumn 2020 – this would set out the Government strategy and policy on Devolution, Combined Authorities and Local Government. It is believed that this is a core part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda and we should learn a lot more once this White Paper is published.
At this point there is no firm timeline on when any reorganisation might happen in Lancashire or any definite plan for what this will look like. There was a suggestion this may all happen over the next two years with the new Councils being created and ready from May 2022 along with the Combined Authority. This would be a huge amount of work even without the Coronavirus Pandemic. This timeline was on the basis the White Paper would be published in Autumn 2020 – there are reports the White Paper might now be delayed until 2021.
The current ruling Conservative administration at Lancashire County Council seem particularly keen for this all to happen sooner rather than later. They have submitted an outline business case to Government on what they think Local Government Reorganisation should look like.
This is important for UNISON members working for Councils because any reorganisation will have a direct impact on your employment, who you work for and how you work. This will also impact UNISON members working for the Police because it is likely any newly created Mayor will take over the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner.
The LCC proposals
An outline bid has been created and submitted by LCC alone, they are not supported or endorsed by all Councils across Lancashire. Some Lancashire Councils have taken a formal position that no decision should be made until the White Paper is published and fully understood.
The Conservative administration at LCC have submitted these proposals to Government without them going through any formal process, for example Cabinet or Full Council. They say there was not time to do this if Lancashire were to be in the first group of new Combined Authorities to be announced. Lancashire is not currently going to be in the first group and the LCC Tory Administration hoped this bid would get them into the first group – this is stated in the document. If Lancashire was put in the first group then it is likely that local elections across Lancashire could be cancelled in May 2021 with any new Councils being created from May 2022.
There has been some speculation as to why there is a rush to do this during a pandemic. Does the Conservative administration want to be in the first wave because they are worried they may lose the elections in May 2021 and want to cling on to power at a crucial stage in creating the new Combined Authority and new Councils? Or do they genuinely believe now is the best time to do this and it is in Lancashire’s best interests? That political debate is taking place.
Three New Unitary Councils
Regardless of rumours and speculation as to reasons behind this an outline bid has been submitted to Government which calls for the creation of a Mayoral Lancashire Combined Authority and three new Unitary Councils to replace the existing fifteen Councils.
The three new proposed Councils are;
• North West Lancashire will cover the current geographical areas of Fylde, Blackpool, Wyre, Lancaster and Ribble Valley.
• Central Lancashire will cover the areas of West Lancashire, Chorley, South Ribble and Preston.
• East (Pennine) Lancashire will cover the areas of Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley, Rossendale and Pendle.
The bid states that this model will help deliver the ambitious recovery and levelling up plans because the current Local Government structure does not enable Lancashire to do this. It states that three Unitaries will be fit for purpose and unleash stronger growth, deliver economic renewal and levelling up and provide high-quality, integrated public services for healthier and better connected communities.
UNISON’s concern is that these bold statements whilst sounding attractive to win Government favour to try to get into the first group of new Combined Authorities are based more on opinion and assertion rather than hard evidence that things will get better by arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The report does little to address the fundamental issue of properly funding public services which are currently stretched to breaking point.
On finances the bid does say that the proposal to have three Unitary Councils would generate savings of £60-£80m over a three year period and that unitarisation is a catalyst for much more substantial transformation that would improve services and deliver greater savings. UNISON recognise there can be efficiencies of scale but such savings are not likely unless there are also job losses. The report also talks about selling off Council buildings.
The bid mentions in passing the cuts to Local Government funding but at no point does it suggest any increase in funding to ensure that public services are properly funded in Lancashire nor does it recognise that Local Government may be struggling precisely because of the cuts Conservative Governments have inflicted on Lancashire over the last 10 years. The bid suggests that savings from Unitarisation can be re-invested and new Unitary Councils will be more financially sustainable. In UNISON’s view any savings will not fully replace money lost to 10 years of austerity and cuts.
There are some parts of the bid which have some logical sense; for example delivering Public Services in a better and more joined up way, taking strategic approaches on a Lancashire wide basis and greater collaboration across Lancashire and public services. Devolution and greater collaboration is not necessarily a bad thing if there are genuinely better ways to do things – it is more a case of why do this now rather than why not?
The bid also suggests that it will hand power back to people. No detail or evidence is provided as to how any of this will be more democratic that UNISON can see other than the suggestion of a Democracy Commission to look into it, which could be admission in itself that the proposals are less democratic for those who live in Lancashire as larger Councils are more remote from the communities they serve.
So what happens next?
LCC’s outline bid is clearly an attempt to seduce the Government into letting Lancashire be in the first round of new Combined Authorities and a lot will depend on when the Government White Paper is published. Government’s plans will be clearer once it is published and ultimately the Government will determine what changes if any will happen in Lancashire. The Government may or may not let Lancashire into the first round and if they do the Local Elections may be suspended in May 2021.
Ultimately it does seem certain that Local Government will be reorganised. For UNISON members this will mean major changes as you may end up working for a new Council. It will be a huge task to map existing staffing, structures and services to new Councils and will inevitably mean changes to roles, jobs, places of work and ways of working. There will almost certainly be jobs lost as a result. How will all the different terms and conditions of employment be managed and will this be resolved by picking the best available and levelling up?
UNISON will keep watch on developments and keep you fully informed.
You can see the full outline bid here;https://www.lancashire.gov.uk/media/919064/proposition-for-local-government-reorganisation-in-lancashire.pdf