Combined Authorities appear to be Central Government’s preferred model of devolving power in England – and whilst there are numerous arguments against this proposition, it is likely that these will fall upon deaf ears. We must therefore deal with the actualité of the situation.
Devolution is a subtle and nuanced matter, not given to soundbites or easy solutions. I am very clear in my view that devolution ought to mean power transferring from Whitehall and Westminster to Blackpool. Council Leaders in Wales and Scotland tell me that devolution from Westminster has led simply to powers being centralised in Cardiff and Holyrood – and not passed down to local councils.
We cannot allow such a situation here –any combined authority for Lancashire must treat all participant councils as equal partners. Current joint working arrangements are variable in their success. Transport for Lancashire (a partnership between Blackpool, Blackburn and Lancashire County) works well – the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (a similar partnership) does not, and I remain singularly unimpressed by it. The MP’s for Hyndburn and Chorley have both expressed their concerns about this style of devolution, with which I have some sympathy.
Blackpool became a unitary authority because we did not feel that a council the size of LCC could pay enough attention to our very specific needs – Blackburn with Darwen clearly felt the same. In recent months, both Wyre and Chorley have indicated a preference for unitary status, so clearly that feeling has not gone away.
There can therefore be no talk of an elected mayor for Lancashire, or the formation of a “Greater Lancashire” authority which sees power taken out of the hands of Blackpudlians – but I’m not against negotiating around issues where there may be a common set of aims – education planning and strategic housing matters present themselves as obvious areas which bear further exploration.
In the final analysis however, Blackpool has more in common with places like Hastings than it does with places like the Ribble Valley (I was born in Blackburn, grew up in Clitheroe, and have just ordered my Blackburn Rovers Season Ticket – East Lancashire is a wonderful place, but very different to Blackpool). In the coming months, therefore, I will be exploring the possibility of working with other seaside towns – some of whom might, like Blackpool, want local control over housing benefit budgets, as a tool to dealing with a large surplus of former hotel accommodation, to name but one issue.
Is the Government brave enough to consider devolving powers to a group of councils who have a lot in common, but who aren’t geographic neighbours? We’ll see…