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Lancs councils launch unitary call

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Four Lancashire councils have launched a bid to form a new unitary that they say will put the area at “the centre of the Northern Powerhouse”.

The leaders of Blackburn with Darwen BC, which is already unitary, and Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale BCs wrote to communities secretary James Brokenshire on Wednesday to propose a new council for East Lancashire.

In the letter they say 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 says.

As well as seeking to create a new council the boroughs, which between them serve a population of around 500,000, want to strike a deal with the government to redevelop the area and increase is contribution to the national economy.

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 LGC understands little progress has been made.

In the letter to Mr Brokenshire the cross-party group of leaders say they are open to talking to other councils if it makes “geographical sense”.

Rossendale leader Alyson Barnes (Lab) said: “Two tier councils have never been ideal but in these days of austerity and reducing budgets we owe it to our residents to get best value in terms of local services. The delay, duplication and waste that exists within the two tier system is simply not acceptable.”

The letter has been copied to Lancashire CC leader Geoff Driver (Con) 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.

Blackburn with Darwen became a unitary in 2009. Council leader Mohammed Khan (Lab) 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.”

In a statement Cllr Driver said the county would “consider” the letter but was “mindful of the large costs involved in reorganisation at a time when finance for local government has been significantly reduced and demand particularly for vulnerable adults and children continues to grow”.

He continued: “Lancashire County Council has been supportive of the idea of a combined authority, made up of councils across the county working together, which would put us on a level with the other major players in the North West, rather than further devolution.

“Millions of pounds have been poured into areas such as Manchester and Merseyside and we need to be a part of that.”

In a recent interview with LGC, Wigan MBC’s outgoing chief executive Donna Hall, who was previously chief executive of the Lancashire district Chorley BC, called for the county to be broken up.

She said: “I’ll get shot by Lancashire but I don’t care. It needs to be either two or three unitaries. It’s dysfunctional. It will never solve its budgetary problems because it’s not close enough to residents.”

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