Lancashire should be a “trailblazer” in rethinking how local government operates, according to the leader of its county council.
Geoff Driver has floated the idea of changing the way services are split between the two levels of local government which exist in most parts of the county.
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He suggested that some functions could be shifted from county to district level - and vice versa.
Currently, County Hall provides services such as adult and children’s social care, highways, education and libraries - and also deals with some major planning applications like fracking. District councils look after leisure, waste collection, parks, licensing and most other planning applications.
County Cllr Driver would not be drawn on which responsibilities might move in which direction and stressed that it would require a discussion with his district counterparts. But he said that there was no reason not to explore the possibility if other ongoing moves to reorganise local government in Lancashire ultimately result in the status quo being maintained.
“It could well be that some of the services provided by the county council would be better provided locally and, equally, some of those services provided by the districts - which are much more strategic in their nature - might be better provided by the county council,” the Conservative leader said.
“If [Lancashire’s council leaders] come to that sort of conclusion, that might be a proposal we put forward to the [government] for consideration. But it’s really early days - we haven’t even had a conversation yet.”
The roles of the different tiers of local government are laid down in law - so any change would require a unique model being created for Lancashire.
“And why not?” County Cllr Driver asked, noting that it could then be rolled out elsewhere.
“Lancashire has been a trailblazer before, why not again?”
His comments follow a letter which he sent last week to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in which he outlined plans to bring forward county-wide proposals for local government reorganisation - if a separate bid by the standalone Blackburn with Darwen Council to create a so-called “unitary” authority across East Lancashire progresses.
In the letter, County Cllr Driver stated that he will suggest “an alternative”, in consultation with all 12 Lancashire districts.
He denies that the proposal would necessarily be one for a “mega-council” - a single unitary authority for all of Lancashire - as Hyndburn MP Graham Jones suggested would be the case in a critical post of such a move social media.
County Cllr Driver said that he believes unitary arrangements are “the best form” of local government - but that he has not come to a definite view on whether Lancashire should be covered by one or more such authorities if reorganisation does go ahead.
“We need to consider all the options, because what we want is the best for the people of Lancashire.
“It is my firm view that we should not be looking at different parts of the county in isolation - I've said that to the [government] minister face-to-face and in my letter.
“One also has to consider the ramifications of changing - [there are] costs and disruption,” County Cllr Driver said.
Blackburn with Darwen Council has asked the government if it can be invited to make a bid to create a unitary authority under the umbrella of "Pennine Lancashire" - in which it would band together with East Lancashire districts Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle and Rossendale, causing the boroughs to sever ties with County Hall. But changes in political control at Burnley and Pendle saw them reject the idea earlier this year.
All five East Lancashire MPs are reported to back the concept of a new unitary in the area - and while the government has said that it no longer requires unanimity amongst local authorities before any changes can be made, it does expect any bid to show that opinion amongst them is “coalescing around a single option”.
Any county-wide shake-up would also be likely to affect Blackpool Council which split from county council control and became a standalone authority at the same time as Blackburn with Darwen, back in 1998.
“I don’t see the possibility of coalescing around a common goal in terms of [creating a] Pennine Lancashire authority - but whether that means the status quo will prevail, the Secretary of State will decide,” County Cllr Driver said.
HOW MUCH COULD BE SAVED BY COUNCIL MERGERS?
Research back in 2016 concluded that the biggest savings from local government reorganisation would come from the creation of county-wide standalone authorities to replace the two-tier structure in those areas where it is in operation.
Consultants Ernst and Young estimated that the abolition of all district authorities in England - like Preston, Chorley and South Ribble - would save up to £2.8bn a year in terms of administration costs and other operational efficiencies.
However, their report suggested that reduced savings of £1.7bn were still possible if counties were split into two unitary authorities covering smaller areas.
It was estimated that the creation of three new standalone councils per county would result in a net cost to the taxpayer of £33m - but that this could be offset depending on the organisational structures which were created.
Another option would be to maintain the two-tier structure, but reduce the number of districts operating within it to just three - there are currently 12 within Lancashire. Such a move could save up to £839m nationwide.
There are currently 26 county council areas across the country, the numbers having been reduced during various rounds of government-mandated reorganisation over the past 25 years.