Councils and business leaders have accused Lancashire CC of “misrepresenting” business and “ignoring” the democratic process after the county claimed a deal for a single pan-Lancashire local enterprise partnership had been agreed.
In a strongly worded letter to business minister Mark Prisk and decentralisation minister Greg Clark, the leaders of Blackburn with Darwen BC and Burnley BC, said that contrary to claims made by Lancashire CC, an agreement on a single pan-Lancashire local enterprise partnership (LEP) “has not been agreed by all councils and businesses within the County of Lancashire”.
The move came after the county council sent a letter to the minister last week, which said that the ongoing dispute over the future of economic development in Lancashire had been resolved in favour of a single Lancashire LEP.
Initially, three LEP bids had been submitted across Lancashire - one for the Blackpool & Fylde partnership, a pan-Lancashire proposal driven by the county council, and one for the Pennine Lancashire partnership, which comprises the six councils in east Lancashire.
However, when ministers announced the first wave of 24 successful LEPs, which the government intends to replace regional development agencies, none in Lancashire were accepted, with the councils involved asked to “rationalise” their bids. The councils were asked to submit revised proposals by 8 December.
Initially it had appeared that a two-LEP solution would be found for the sub-region, with Blackpool & Fylde joining a west Lancashire LEP alongside the Pennine Lancashire LEP - a model that reflected the organisation of the chambers of commerce in Lancashire, which is split between two chambers representing the east and west.
However, last week the Conservative leaders of Hyndburn BC, Ribble Valley BC, Rossendale BC and Pendle BC - all of which were signed up to the Pennine Lancashire bid and are part of the Pennine Lancashire multi-area-agreement- came out in support of the Conservative-led county council’s single pan-Lancashire proposal.
Mike Blomeley (Con), Pendle BC leader, said the Lancashire-wide LEP was the “last offer on the table”. He said: “We need to be part of something and this is the last game in town”.
Following the council leaders’ shift in support, Lancashire CC wrote to ministers (see letter attached) to say that “local partners have now agreed to develop one LEP to provide strategic leadership for the whole of the Lancashire sub-region”
The letter said that Blackpool BC, Fylde BC and Wyre BC had agreed to support the pan-Lancashire bid “immediately” after the Lancashire bids were ignored in the first wave of 24 LEPs and now “all other authorities, apart from Blackburn and Burnley “agree that that one pan-Lancashire LEP is the best way forward”.
The letter said that the councils involved would try to “encourage” Blackburn and Burnley to join the bid, but added that in the case of Burnley, the county had “the primary responsibility for economic development, skills and transport and will discharge these responsibilities in Burnley in the same way as the rest of Lancashire.”
However, in a subsequent letter to ministers, the leaders of Blackburn and Burnley said this ignores Pennine Lancashire’s existing multi-area-agreement, which has put in place a statutory join-committee that has responsibility for regeneration and economic development across the partnership.
Kate Hollern (Lab), Blackburn with Darwen leader, and Charlie Briggs (Lib Dem), Burnley leader, added that the county had been “premature” in assuming it now had support of Pendle and Hyndburn councils, as despite the leaders’ views, the councils themselves had yet to pass a motion in support of the pan-Lancashire proposals.
The leaders said: “Pendle council have acknowledged that they would be unable to support a pan-Lancashire LEP … We also understand that Hyndburn BC cannot reasonably commit support to a pan-Lancashire arrangement until they have taken formal decisions to do so, and may not give such support.”
The leaders said “political considerations” had taken precedence “over the issues of businesses across Pennine Lancashire”, which they said “contradicts the guidance from government that clearly stipulated LEPs should reflect economic footprints rather than be constrained to historical administrative boundaries and simply county council footprints”.
“On the basis of the above it would be inappropriate for you to take any decision on this matter at present. The proposal you have received separately, led by Lancashire CC, cannot be regarded as a sound basis for a decision. It misrepresents businesses and even ignores the local councils’ own decision making machinery”.
It added that “crucially” the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce (ELCC) and the Pennine Lancashire Business Leaders Forum “remain in strong support of the Pennine Lancashire LEP”.
In the county council’s letter, Geoff Driver (Con), Lancashire CC leader, said that business supported the pan-Lancashire proposal and that the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, which had supported the Pennine Lancashire bid was “considering its position”.
However, in a separate letter, Mike Damms, ELCC chief executive, denied this and reiterated the chambers support for the Pennine Lancashire bid. He said business was “disappointed” that “party politics … may be creeping into the local negotiations”.
“The potential for this to cause deep and long-lasting division is worrying and frankly an unwelcome diversion from focus on the economy,” he added.
He said: “We are acutely conscious of the ‘mess’ that this may appear from the outside, but are still more concerned about the wrong resolution being reached for expediency and the wrong reasons. Having enjoyed constructive relationships with all of the players involved, it seems to us that more work remains to be done to find a resolution appropriate for Lancashire.”