Business lobbyist warns over break-up proposals by Lancashire councils

Frank McKenna

A Lancashire business lobbyist has called on council leaders to abandon plans to form a unitary grouping, and re-double efforts to create a Lancashire-wide Combined Authority.

Last month the leaders of Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council – which is already unitary – and Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale Borough Councils, wrote to communities secretary James Brokenshire to propose a new council for East Lancashire.

They said they need to be “in control of our own destiny” to create a council which is “dynamic, unceasingly ambitious but understanding of the challenges our areas face”.

“We need to create a council which focuses on how Pennine Lancashire can lead on the national stage, and how this heartland of the industrial revolution can be reborn as the centre of the Northern Powerhouse,” the letter said.

The four boroughs serve a population of around 500,000 residents.

Blackburn with Darwen became unitary in 2009 and council leader Mohammed Khan said “only good came from” the restructuring.

“We rose to the challenge two decades ago and we can do it again, this time making the most of the similarities we have and building on the knowledge and strengths of like-minded, ambitious neighbouring councils,” he said.

“This approach, increasing our size and pooling our expertise and other resources, would give East Lancashire more opportunities to keep investing in the half a million people we are here to serve and put us in a position to take on new powers.”

The move follows the collapse of local discussions on a devolution deal for the whole of Lancashire in late 2016.

There have been attempts to revive them since, but little progress has been made.

The letter was copied to Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver and local MPs, including Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, who has previously said the county should be seeking a devolution deal with an elected mayor.

However, Frank McKenna, chief executive of Downtown in Business, said the four councils need to “drop their parochial approach and get on with creating a Lancashire-wide Combined Authority so the region can start to play its full part in the Northern Powerhouse”.

He said: “Just when it seemed Lancashire was getting its act together, we have a return to the parochial politics that have held us back for far too long.

“City deal investment has masked the cost to Lancashire of a lack of engagement with the devolution process which has cost the county literally millions of pounds worth of investment in areas such as skills and infrastructure – never mind the negative impact it has had on our influence on the wider regional agenda.

He added: “Frankly, business is fed up having to listen to politicians focusing on micro-issues rather than the big strategic opportunities that are within our grasp.

“We’ve had a row over how many Local Enterprise Partnerships we should have. We’ve seen a shadow combined authority established, and then inexplicably scrapped.

“Now the replacement body, ‘Lancashire Leaders’, is squabbling about a break-up rather than consolidating some of the positive work that has been undertaken in recent years and progressing a ‘one Lancashire’ approach.”

Mr McKenna said: “Not only do I think the East Lancashire authorities make the county weaker with their new initiative, if they were ever successful in their calls for a unitary council I believe places like Burnley and Pendle would be poorer in economic development terms.

“They should be careful what they wish for.”