To consider Local Government Reform and devolution, including the initial exploration of evidence to substantiate a high level case for a new unitary council for the area comprising the three districts of South Lakeland, Barrow and Lancaster.
Councillor Giles Archibald, Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder, presented a report, explaining that in anticipation that Government might call for proposals for the reorganisation of local government, it was being proposed that the Council worked jointly with Barrow Borough and Lancaster City councils to explore further evidence to substantiate a case for the area of the three districts to form a Unitary Authority. The report indicated that the development of a high level case would be an initial step, enabling the three councils to explore and describe the benefits of a cross county boundary proposal, based squarely on the functioning economic geography and health footprint of the Morecambe Bay area. It would enable the councils to present an option to Government, demonstrating how a unitary council would be an effective driver of economic, social and environmental benefits for the area’s residents, businesses and visitors, realise the strategic potential of the area and enable transformation of public services.
In moving the recommendations contained within the report, Councillor Archibald informed Members that, a number of months previously, he had been called to a meeting with the then Minister Jake Berry and other leaders in Cumbria to discuss possible devolution and the reorganisation that would be required in order to achieve a devolution deal. Councillor Archibald explained the current situation, several meetings later.
The Government had indicated that it would publish a White Paper, probably in the New Year, which would lay out the conditions for reorganisation and devolution. The Government had made it clear that, if an area had general and strong agreement to a reorganisation structure, it could request permission to move ahead prior to the publication of the White Paper. In technical detail, the Council had to ask for the Secretary of State to send to it a letter asking it to submit a high-level case. That letter had gone in from the County Council asking for that permission to submit a case. The County Council Cabinet had decided to submit a bid for a unitary Cumbria. Given this decision and preliminary indications from Government, the districts in Cumbria had been developing their ideas as to alternative unitary structures. There was no agreement among the districts and Councillor Archibald felt that, if bids were requested today, there could be at least four different unitary structures submitted.
It was Councillor Archibald’s own view that this was not a good time to be discussing reorganisation. He believed that focus should be on the current Covid-19 crisis and that the Council should be putting all its spare resources into assisting businesses and its most vulnerable residents. This discussion about re-organisation was both distracting and somewhat divisive. It was also not good timing as it was not yet known what would be in the White Paper, nor the Government’s plan for adult social care. In addition, the Council lacked detail on what devolution might mean for it. It had to be recognised, though, that the Government might push towards reorganisation, in which case the Council needed to be ready with what it felt best for its community. To this end, Councillor Archibald was asking Members to approve the recommendations contained in the report to enable the Council to explore the option of a Morecambe Bay unitary authority, to explore the appropriateness of reorganisation for the Council and to develop a high level case which could be submitted in the case that a proposed bid was sought.
Councillor Archibald did not believe that a unitary Cumbria was optimal for residents. He informed Members that there were many independent studies which showed that the larger the local authority, the less engagement there was of the electorate; less trust in the councillors; and reduction in voter turnout. Carlisle was remote from South Lakeland. Councillor Archibald pointed out that Cumbria was an artificial invention, drawing attention to the LA postcode. He also pointed out that the people of Barrow identified more with Lancaster than with Whitehaven. Councillor Archibald said that independent research showed no conclusive evidence of savings or increased efficiency through a larger council size.
Councillor Archibald believed that, if there was to be a reorganisation, then residents should be given the chance to consider a Morecambe Bay footprint for a unitary authority. The Bay was a functioning economic area, shared a health trust and had an affinity around the Bay. The three authorities had found an incredible consistency in approach to local government and worked well together, also sharing history and geography.
These recommendations, to explore the concept of a Morecambe Bay unitary and to develop a high level business case, had already been agreed by Barrow and Lancaster councils. Councillor Archibald pointed out that, if agreed, a communications programme could be agreed with Barrow and Lancaster which would include extensive use of social media, involve a connecting with the parishes, engage businesses, and would include a special informal discussion with councillors later in the month. A special meeting would then be held for Council to approve the detail of the high level case to be presented to Government. Councillor Archibald believed this approach to be prudent and in the best interest of residents.
Councillor Jonathan Brook, Deputy Leader and Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder, seconded the motion.
Debate commenced on the motion, with attention being drawn to 2004 and a proposal at that time for Barrow, Lancaster and South Lakeland being the Council’s preferred option in response to a Government consultation at that time on Unitary Local Government. That had not happened and, since that time, there had been differences between the seven councils in Cumbria over its future government. It was suggested that councillors were not only loyal to their communities, but also to their organisations. The need for fact gathering on the Morecambe Bay solution was raised. Councillor Archibald’s concerns regarding timing were echoed, and the Government’s current capacity to deal with devolution at the same time as Covid-19, Brexit and social care was questioned.
Councillor Tom Harvey, Leader of the Opposition Group, informed Council that his Group was broadly in support of the recommendations, however, proposed an amendment, which he hoped could be taken on board, by changing Recommendation (2) to (2)(a) and adding (2)(b), to read as follows:-
“To continue to engage with Cumbria County Council and the other Cumbrian district councils on other potential options to ensure South Lakeland residents get the best available benefits from any local government reorganisation.”
Councillor Archibald explained that he was unable to take on board the amendment as written, as he felt it was clear that there was engagement. He stressed that, although other district councils were developing other potential options, South Lakeland was not. Other options would emerge, but South Lakeland was focussing on the Morecambe Bay option. However, Councillor Archibald gave his assurance that there would be continued dialogue with the County and other districts with whom he met and talked on a regular basis.
Councillor Harvey at this stage having become temporarily disconnected from the meeting, Councillor Ben Berry suggested that Councillor Harvey would wish to pursue the amendment or ask Councillor Archibald to record his commitment for continued dialogue with the County and other districts to understand their thoughts and options.
Councillor Archibald, however, although happy to reiterate this commitment both verbally and in writing, wished to proceed with the motion as it stood. He offered, though, to engage with the Group Leaders and Members on a regular basis.
Councillor Harvey, having reconnected to the meeting following a short adjournment to resolve his technical issues, explained that he had understood the essence of Councillor Archibald’s response. Councillor Harvey informed Council that his Group believed that local government reform and devolution needed to progress. Members had listened to the Morecambe Bay option, which his Group agreed was one of the options which should be explored. Also welcomed was the fact that there was, to some extent, consensus of opinion that the layers of local government in Cumbria required some level of reform, although Councillor Harvey appreciated that there were disagreements regarding the timing. Councillor Harvey had heard the concerns raised regarding the speed in which the matter was being pursued by the Government and, he said, with the publication of the White Paper being something of a moveable feast, this was not ideal. Councillor Harvey believed that everyone appreciated that seven principal councils and all that entailed could not be justified for a little over 0.5m people. Despite different views, Councillor Harvey stressed the need to take politics out of the equation and to push for reform that resulted in better outcomes for residents. Councillor Harvey reiterated that the amendment supported the proposals but added the need not to preclude other options.
Councillor James Airey seconded Councillor Harvey’s proposed amendment. Councillor Airey suggested that there would never be a good time for local government reorganisation and devolution, however, felt that it needed to progress. He believed that the amendment allowed flexibility to look at all options and consultation with the residents of South Lakeland. He pointed out that the potential for cross county border options would not be even be known until the White Paper was published. He further pointed out that devolution was not about saving jobs but about new ways of delivering top quality public services and making savings to put into front line services. Councillor Airey referred to the independent studies mentioned by Councillor Archibald which had shown that there was no evidence of single unitaries making huge savings. Councillor Airey referred to research carried out five years previously by Ernst Young for Cumbria County Council which had demonstrated savings as a result of a unitary authority of potentially £35m annually. He pointed out that the headquarters of a Cumbria unitary would not necessarily have to be based in Carlisle. He also drew attention to services such as social care and education and to the fact that district councils did not have expertise in these important fields, adding that the provision of education through a trust would be a retrograde step.
Debate took place on the proposed amendment. Raised was the importance of exploring the Morecambe Bay option further prior to taking a particular line. It was also suggested that residents should be involved through their local representatives and that there should representation from all political parties in discussions moving forward. Some support was raised for the amendment, despite some wishing to see the Bay option come about.
Some Members felt the amendment to be unnecessary, saying that the proposals as they stood will allow for further discussion and consultation moving forward. Councillor Archibald’s proposals did not seek to close options down and he had demonstrated commitment for continued dialogue. The paper proposed exploration of a particular option but was not committing to it. The option seemed currently to be the most natural combination. It was pointed out that the County Council had made its own proposal without involvement of the districts and there was currently no realistic grouping of councils otherwise.
Councillor Archibald responded to a remark by Councillor Airey, explaining that the research to which he had referred had been independent whist Cumbria County Council’s had not. With regard to adult social care, Councillor Archibald informed Members that authorities existed similar in size to Morecambe Bay that had responsibility for this and that they had done well. There would not necessarily be recourse to a social trust and, in addition, having social care on the same footprint as the health trust had potential advantages. Councillor Archibald said that, as the high level case was developed, he would be willing to engage with and hold regular meetings with Group Leaders to discuss the matter. Councillor Archibald believed that the proposed amendment would dilute focus which needed to be on developing the high level case for Morecambe Bay. He also informed Members that he met regularly with the other Cumbrian district and County Council leaders, with the devolution topic often raised. Councillor Archibald reiterated that he was happy to make commitments outside of the motion on the lines described and asked Council not to accept the amendment.
In response to a Point of Order raised by Councillor Brook, the Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) explained that Council would be voting on the proposed amendment which, she clarified, was the whole of the original motion but with the additional paragraph as put forward by Councillor Harvey and set out above. She further explained rules of procedure should the amendment be carried or lost.
The amendment was lost following a vote by roll call, and discussion returned to the substantive motion.
A number of questions were raised, including: How would this result in better outcomes for residents? How would there be improved democratic accountability? How would this make efficiencies? How would this work for all of Cumbria and Lancashire? It was pointed out that there were a lot of parishes in South Lakeland, unlike Barrow and Lancaster, and questioned as to how and whether they would be able to take on the roles placed on them by a unitary council.
A number of comments were raised. Attention was drawn to complications due to the mixed demography of Cumbria, although it was pointed out that the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty crossed the frontier between South Lakeland and Lancaster. Members represented residents and concern was expressed at the potential for South Lakeland to join with two large urban areas, bearing in mind the Council’s existing good relationship with parishes and local area partnerships. The need to ensure that this good relationship was maintained and the importance for residents knowing that they would still have their voice was raised. It was pointed out that, if a Morecambe Bay unitary came to fruition, this would result in two police and crime commissioners trying to attract resources from the new council. The need not to close the door on other options was stressed and it was acknowledged that Councillor Archibald had provided reassurance in this regard. It was reiterated that the timing was not good with the current pandemic and with resources already stretched to capacity, particularly bearing in mind the huge amount of work required for reform. It was also pointed out, however, that the Council having already risen to the challenge of significant reorganisation as a result of Covid-19, and having thus proved that it could change quickly, would be able to do this again. It was questioned as to why dual-hatted Members who had already voted for a Unitary Cumbria were also expressing support for this motion.
Members on the whole expressed support for the motion and the importance of providing a mandate to the Leader and officers to work out best possible deal for residents of South Lakeland was stressed. Unitary authorities caused less confusion to residents as regards delivery of services. A Morecambe Bay Unitary already existed culturally, economically and educationally. It was pointed out that South Lakeland’s health infrastructure was already dictated by this footprint. In addition, the Community Safety Partnership had a good working relationship with Barrow Borough Council. Furthermore, cross-council talks were already happening with Barrow and Lancaster around both climate emergency and alleviation of poverty. Bigger unitary authorities were not necessarily best and were less agile. It was felt that making larger authorities would not improve local democracy, which was important as it enabled listening, understanding and analysis to find solutions to keep the economy moving forward and was key in informing place-making that enabled businesses to thrive. It was pointed out that it was, in fact, appropriate for dual-hatted Members to support both the County Council and District Council proposals for fact finding which would enable them to come to a decision when the final cases were presented. The need for Members to be well informed and, in addition, to understand the difference between unitary and combined authorities, was stressed.
Councillor Brook, as seconder, reiterated that there would be opportunity for consultation and discussion with communities and other authorities as the process moved forward. Councillor Brook said that there was nothing wrong with a drive for increased efficiency. He pointed out that South Lakeland had an excellent track record of innovative approaches to cost reduction and enhanced service delivery through initiatives such as its Customer Connect Programme. In addition, South Lakeland’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic had shown it to be one of the most efficient and effective councils in the North West. The Council was, therefore, prepared to rise to any challenge that the Government may throw its way in terms of local government reform and devolution and, although it was felt that now was not a good time to be looking at alternative structures for the delivery of local government services, the Council would respond in a diligent and appropriate manner. Councillor Brook pointed out that this proposal recognised the reality that the Bay area was an integrated economic area, and had been for many years. There were strong historical, community and business links across the area and it mirrored the footprint for the delivery of health services. The individual local authorities around the Bay could build on this reality, to achieve more by working together on economic prosperity and delivering services than by acting individually. South Lakeland’s residents were at the heart of everything the Council did, and it was felt that they understood and believed in the Bay area as offering a realistic and accessible footprint for local democracy to flourish on any new footprint. It was felt that future consultation will confirm this. Councillor Brook pointed out that the paper before Members sought to enable the exploration of a Bay Option and for the reasons given, he was happy to second this proposal.
Councillor Archibald stressed the fact that this debate did not end tonight and would continue for some time. He explained that there would be engagement with parishes and further welcomed suggestions on how to continue discussions amongst Members and with residents. He referred to questions raised and extended an offer to meet with Members to provide detailed answers. He thanked Members for the comments and reiterated that approval of the motion would provide an opportunity to explore the pros and cons of a Morecambe Bay unitary authority and to develop a high level case.
No Member having raised concern when asked by the Chairman, it was subsequently
RESOLVED – That
(1) the current position with devolution and Local Government Reform be noted;
(2) the Leader and Chief Executive be authorised to work with Barrow Borough and Lancaster City councils to explore Local Government Reform and devolution, including the development of a high level case for a new unitary council for the area comprising the three districts;
(3) it be noted that the high level case will be brought back to Cabinet and Council for agreement prior to submission to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; and
(4) it be noted that the Secretary of State may then invite the Council to put forward a formal proposal which will be subject to future Cabinet and Council agreement.