Saturday, 13 September 2014

Why a unitary local authority for East Lancashire is worth investigating..

There are many common sense and practical reasons why people in East Lancashire, particularly MP's are beginning to ask the question: 'Is it in the best interests of Lancashire and East Lancashire that the county is dissolved into separate unitary authorities?'.

Two stand out straight away. Band D council tax in 2014/15 in Blackburn is £1,486.46 whilst in two tier Hyndburn it is £1,557.87.;

Local Council
Council Tax Band D 2014/2015
2 Councils or 1 Council covering an area
Bolton * (not EL)
unitary council
unitary council
two tier County Council and District
two tier County Council and District
two tier County Council and District
two tier County Council and District

The second reason is localism. More services provided locally, more locally accountable.

- 72% of services/decisions by Lancashire County Council in Preston
- 15% of services/decisions by Hyndburn Council
- 13% of services provided by Police/Fire

 - It is clear that services and decisions could be brought closer to the public.
- That the duplication across two councils is both costly and bureaucratic.
- That the duplication of services at a time when services are being slashed across borough's is very costly.

I believe along with fellow East Lancashire MP's, leaders and councils that it is time to ask the question what is best for the public?

At a time when shared services are vital to save money, it is the opportunity to have the advantages of a single entity or council. Where leisure services can be tied with adult social care. Where planning can be tied in with highways, housing with public health and welfare meeting the needs of children. Where there aren't two of everything. Two estates, two chief executives two sets of councillors. The opportunity to share and work more closely with police and crucially health providers and the huge NHS estate.

It is wrong that Hyndburn Council raises extra hypothecated revenue from empty homes in areas that need that investment only for County Council to consume that taxation across the County, spending it onot on regeneration for which it is not responsible, but other services. The same goes for the New Homes Bonus.

I believe such a question may have several answers. Several geographical permutations and may stretch from co-operation to incorporation. It's time to have have that open ended debate and I know my colleagues will be holding a press conference on the matter later this month. It's time to to discuss the matter further.

Lord Heseltine, in his ground-breaking report “No Stone Unturned” strongly recommended that all “two-tier English local authorities outside London should pursue a path towards unitary status.

Lord Heseltine said that the “multi-tiered nature of the English local government system makes it even more difficult to exploit economic opportunities fully. The duplication and inefficiencies, blurred lines of accountability and competing local leadership constrain local government from functioning effectively”. “Businesses” he said, “prefer to deal with one local authority”

Outside London and Metropolitan areas, successive governments have approved incremental changes towards unitary local government. There are now 55 unitary authorities in the shire areas of England, accounting for a population of 12,110,632, 36% of the total population of these areas.

In the North West, Cheshire became wholly unitary in 2009 (diving into two authorities). In Lancashire, intense debate about the future of local government in the 1990’s, including intra-party differences of view, led in 1998 to Ministerial decisions to create two unitary authorities – Blackpool, and Blackburn with Darwen – whilst the remainder of the 1974 County of Lancashire stayed two-tier.

This has to be about the rest of Lancashire to. The interests of Central and West Lancashire are different from, and to some extent in competition with those of East Lancashire. It makes little sense for some of the key decisions on the economic future of the sub-region to be made in Preston, when they could be better made within the sub-region itself. There are two Chambers of Commerce, East and West Lancashire and the LEP is divided into three sub structures (East, South and North) recognising the different challenges in each area.

Chorley are now considering at unitary options and there is talk elsewhere of a different model for Lancashire. One that refects the 21st century.

East Lancashire is a single economic area, with many common characteristics (including a much higher than average manufacturing sector [1]), and geographical and historical boundaries which quite naturally separate it from population centres in Greater Manchester to the south, West Yorkshire to the east, and Central and West Lancashire to the west. The M65 motorway binds the sub-region. Business itself recognises the unity of the area, with the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce. The sub-region is a clear travel-to-work/shop/college area.

Crucially it is vital that East Lancashire is able to punch its weight with Government departments. Is able to work with big businesses to promote the interests of sub region and provide confidence to investors. linking transport decisions with education (skills and training) and planning decisions so business has the confidence to invest.

Budgetary pressures on the shire districts in East Lancashire are now so intense that their ability to sustain key staffs and services for some key functions is now under severe strain. Hyndburn has already begun to share services. Regeneration with Blackburn, Planning, Building Control and waste collection with Rossendale. Services are past breaking point yet more savings must be found.

There are six East Lancashire Councils and the County Council. Each duplicating each other. There has to be place for the neighbourhood, the parish, the small town council and that relationship needs to forged better but there needs to responsibility and toed up government on the real big issues that shape our lives and that will shape our futures.

The idea that we can ignore the question, carry on business as usual whilst East Lancashire struggles in the head winds of globalisation is too easy and too comfortable an answer.

It's time we looked at how to make efficiencies, unify decisons and make those decisions more locally.