The local authorities of Barrow, Lancaster and South Lakeland have confirmed their support to progress a process that could lead to a formal bid for a new unitary council governing Morecambe Bay.
The councils have each agreed at respective full council meetings that a ‘high-level’ case be investigated to develop the idea, in anticipation that Government may call for ideas to be presented on local government reform.
Government has indicated it intends to publish a White Paper on local government reorganisation and invite submissions of interest from councils on preferred options.
In Lancashire and Cumbria in particular, this has led to various plans being floated – in August the leaders of Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire declared their intention to pursue a unitary authority rather than join in with a pan-Lancashire combined authority, while September saw Cumbria push forward with a Combined Authority plan
Government has suggested it will only be considering options that replace the current ‘two tier’ system of district councils and county councils, and while the leaders of Barrow, Lancaster and South Lakeland have all expressed the view that reorganisation should be shelved during the pandemic, they have pressed on in order to deal with the situation as Government demands.
The full council decisions could lead to the merger of the three district councils and drawing down of certain powers from the county councils, to create a new single-tier authority for the area responsible for local government functions.
They will now develop a high-level case that will enable the councils to further examine the potential benefits of a cross-county-boundary proposal, examining ways to improve local government and service delivery across the area, giving greater value for money, generating savings, and providing stronger strategic and local leadership. The potential for future Combined Authority arrangements, enabling a fuller devolution of resources and powers from Government, will also be considered.
The councils point out that the Bay Area economic partnership has already achieved notable results, including a successful joint submission to be one of only two “rural” bids in the UK to be accepted by the Arts Council last year to develop a ‘Cultural Compact’ around Morecambe Bay, harnessing cultural and creative opportunities to boost the local economy.
Cllr Dr Erica Lewis, leader of Lancaster City Council, said: “Local government reorganisation isn’t a topic I would have prioritised by choice, but the fact it has been pushed up the agenda by the Government means we must be ready to make our case in the event that a White Paper is published.
“The current proposals being put forward in Lancashire and Cumbria are based on the existing county boundaries, whereas we believe that the option for a cross-boundary authority around Morecambe Bay is worthy of investigation.
“By exploring the potential for a unitary authority based on our three councils further, we will be able to ensure our options remain open and be ready to make our case based on what will best serve our residents and our region, and not simply lines on a map.”
Cllr Giles Archibald, leader of South Lakeland District Council, said: “There is no clear consensus across Cumbria about the best way forward on public sector reform in the county, with various options already suggested and being discussed.
“Ideally we would have liked to know a bit more about the details in the White Paper and some clarity on what the Government thinking is before embarking on this exercise. But, if we are invited to consider options, and if the current system is not going to be acceptable to Ministers, then we owe it to our residents to look at viable alternatives that we believe would offer the most positive benefits for our communities.
“This work will now allow us to examine in greater detail the merits of a Bay authority, building on the existing strong economic partnership we have established and developing ideas around the current shared health, social and economic geography of the Bay area.’’