To consider a proposal for a Bay Area Unitary Authority (Appendix 1 – Outline Proposal for a Bay Unitary Authority – to follow).
Copies of Appendix 1 to the report, which had been marked “to follow” on the agenda, had been circulated to Members and published on the Council’s Website on 2 November 2020.
The Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder reported that, at its meeting on 6 October 2020, Council had authorised himself and the Chief Executive to work with Barrow Borough and Lancaster City councils to explore devolution, including the development of a high level case for a new unitary council for the area comprising the three districts. It had also been noted that the Secretary of State may then invite the Council to put forward a formal proposal which would be subject to future agreement.
Prior to consideration of a high level case, on the 9 October 2020, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in exercise of his powers under Part 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, had invited any principal authority in the area of the county of Cumbria to submit a proposal for a single tier of local government, in accordance with the following criteria:-
· by 9 November 2020, authorities must at least submit an outline proposal, and if a full proposal had not been submitted by that date, the full proposal must be submitted as soon as practicable thereafter and by no later than 9 December 2020;
· authorities must have regard to the guidance from the Secretary of State; and
· an authority may either make its own proposal or make a proposal jointly.
In exploring devolution around the Bay area, Barrow, Lancaster and South Lakeland Councils had now developed the initial work to prepare an outline proposal to meet the guidance set out by the Secretary of State in responding to an invitation.
The draft Outline Proposal formed Appendix 1 to the report. The Outline Proposal set out the rationale for developing a new unitary council. The proposal indicated the opportunities, strengths and strategic needs of the area’s communities and economy and how they may best be addressed through the leadership and resources of local government based on the geography of the functioning economic area and health services footprint.
In addition to structural change, the proposal indicated the benefits which could be realised through public service reform, within local government and collaboratively with other service providers. The area offered the population scale envisaged by the Government’s invite, with a population circa 320,000.
The proposal acknowledged the historic and current associations between places and communities across the Morecambe Bay area. This strengthened the rationale for the organisation of local government at a scale and footprint readily identified by residents and businesses. This enabled locally based, accessible and engaged local government.
The development of further information, proposal and detail would be identified and set out in an action plan to establish the Full Proposal. This would include, for example, further assessment of:-
· the degree of local support for the proposal;
· functions currently performed by the County Councils and modelling their delivery in the unitary arrangement;
· proposals regarding Police, Fire and Rescue services;
· opportunities for service reform with regards to health and care services;
· options for complementary arrangement of Combined Authorities and powers and resources which may be devolved to them;
· financial modelling:-
o The operational costs of the new council, including comparison with alternative proposals and implications for costs to Council Tax payers; and
o The costs and funding of transition from the existing to future arrangements; and
· proposals with regard to the structure of local government in the remainder of Cumbria should the Proposal be implemented.
Members were being asked to consider and agree the outline proposal for submission to Government by 9 November 2020.
Subject to Council approval, work would continue on the full proposal, with a report to be presented back to Cabinet and Council prior to the deadline date of 9 December 2020.
It was expected that Cumbria County Council would submit a proposal for a single unitary council for Cumbria. As an alternative to the single unitary proposal, it was likely that options would be proposed by other district councils for two unitary councils based on combinations of the geographic footprints of the existing district councils. The range of the other proposals would not become clear until 9 November.
In presenting the report, the Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder informed Members that the same report would be discussed by full Council at its meeting in the evening, with Barrow and Lancaster’s councils also today considering the matter. Following these meetings, engagement would continue to take place with parish and town council and key stakeholders. The short timescale prescribed necessitated a shorter period of consultation than normally undertaken by the Council and consultants were, therefore, being appointed to assist in this task, as detailed within the next item of business on the Agenda.
The Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder referred to the County Council’s proposal for a single unitary Cumbia and to potential submissions from the other districts for other combinations. He believed, however, that the option of a unitary authority based on the footprint of Morecambe Bay was vital for the residents of South Lakeland and drew attention to the shared and functioning economy, similar cultural history, the shared health trust and the LA postcode. He referred to the suggestion that substantial savings and efficiencies could be made by a single unitary Cumbria with which he disagreed, pointing out that independent research showed no conclusive evidence of this. Independent research, which he hoped Members had seen, also indicated that in large authorities, voter turnout reduced, there was less trust in councillors and less engagement. He also pointed out that a number of the Members of Parliament in the area were in favour of smaller unitaries.
The Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder turned to questions raised previously around, for example, social care, child services, assets, care homes and finances. He explained that work was being carried out in relation to these areas and that he did not see any implications for a Morecambe Bay unitary authority in this regard.
The Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder stressed the fact that all possible was being done to keep to the Government short timescale in putting together a professional submission and reiterated that it was essential to provide South Lakeland’s residents the option of a Bay unitary authority.
Members expressed support for the proposal. The Economy, Culture and Leisure Portfolio Holder spoke from an economic perspective and referred to informal discussions he had had with a number of businesses where strong concerns had been raised at the short timeframe imposed and to the timing, particularly in the light of the current Covid-19 pandemic. He said that opinions were divided across the business community, however, pointed out that the Bay was a functioning economic region which would be of increasing importance emerging from the pandemic. The Deputy Leader and Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder stressed that this was an important decision and that it was incumbent on councillors, as leaders in their communities, to try to engage with residents in this process. The Council had been seeking to do this in a variety of fora, through community groups, parish councils and business leaders. With little time remaining, he stressed that it was key to get input from residents. He referred to the independent analysis of people views being commissioned by the Council, explaining that this could only be a limited exercise given the time and resources available. All of these inputs will feed in ultimately to the final proposals going forward, hopefully towards the end of November for the final December submission date. He strongly endorsed the direction of travel and looked forward to further engagement and clarity.
The Leader and Promoting South Lakeland Portfolio Holder thanked the Deputy Leader and Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder for his work in the process, as well as other Member of the Cabinet who were engaged in different aspects in preparation of the submission and business case. He further expressed gratitude to those officers involved who had worked hard to get to this point and who continued to develop the business case, and asked the Chief Executive to pass on these thanks.
The Leader asked the meeting if the motion was agreed. There was no dissent.
RESOLVED - That
(1) the outline proposal as attached at Appendix 1 to the report be agreed for submission to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government by 9 November 2020;
(2) the Chief Executive and Leader be authorised to approve any minor amendments that may arise following consideration by Barrow Borough and Lancaster City councils prior to submission and to continue with the work on the final proposal; and
(3) a final Proposal be submitted to a future meeting of Cabinet and Council prior to the requested deadline from Government of 9 December 2020 and it be noted that a date of 8 December has been scheduled for this purpose.
Reasons for Decision
If approved the councils will present the option to Government demonstrating how a unitary council will 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.
Exploring the case for devolution will consider the benefits a change to local government could deliver for economic growth within a highly valued environment with opportunity to improve and maximise the wellbeing of residents. This accords with the Council’s priorities of working across boundaries to deliver economic growth, delivering a balanced community, reducing income and health inequalities and responding to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.
Alternative Options Considered and Rejected
There is an option not to submit a proposal. This would mean that the opportunity and benefits of a unitary council, based on the footprint of the three councils, would not be considered by Government alongside other proposals submitted. The draft Outline Proposal indicates the benefits and opportunities which could be realised for residents and businesses. These would be foregone if a proposal were not submitted. By not submitting a proposal, the Council would significantly reduce its influence in the reorganisation of local government. This option is not recommended.
There is an option to consider some other combinations of district footprints within Cumbria, including the single unitary proposal. It is very likely that these alternative options will be submitted by other councils for consideration by Government. The draft Outline Proposal provides an initial commentary on the benefits of the proposal for a unitary council based on the footprint of our three authorities. To ensure that a full range of options is considered by Government, this option is not recommended.