Cutting Councillor Numbers? All Our Yesterdays! Nothing Today!

The scandal of over-representation of the public by elected members is overdue for correction

On Tuesday, 7 April, 2015 the West Lancashire Conservative Group launched its Manifesto for the Borough Election on the 7th May 2015. The then Leader of the Council, David Westley said “The Conservatives have an excellent record over the last 14 years whilst in control of the Council, providing fairness for all [Really? Pensioners losing an annual travel grant was fairness? Discrimination against the elderly was fairness? Probably, to an ignoramous!] low council tax, value for money frontline services and investment in our town and village centres. Our Manifesto builds on these achievements and provides a clear choice for the all the residents of West Lancashire”.

The manifesto included “Councillors & Elections. Reduce the number of Councillors by at least a third and move to single ‘all-out’ borough elections every four years, saving more than £100k a year”.

Moving on to October 2018

the WLBC Labour Group issued a press statement that included “At the recent meeting of West Lancashire Borough Council, Cllr Adam Yates of Ormskirk’s Knowsley Ward moved a motion to reduce the number of elected members.

“West Lancashire Borough Council has recently begun a full organisational review, in order to ensure that the council remains sustainable in the face of further austerity cuts to council funds by the Conservative Government. The motion to review councillor numbers, which was seconded by Cllr Yates’s fellow Knowsley Ward councillor, Cllr Gareth Dowling [ Later corrected to Cllr Adrian Owens] is in response to this review, as the restructure could allow for a change in the role of a councillor and therefore the number of members needed.

“This Labour administration has a strong track record of looking to offer value to residents, having previously ended the free bar for councillors, which was enjoyed by the Conservatives under the Finance Portfolio of Cllr Adrian Owens, and having continuously frozen allowances since we took control, including for the next two years.

“It makes far more sense to look at the overall number of councillors we need, which is why I have called for the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to be contacted. We hope to get the ball rolling ahead of the SORP report, due to come to Council in July 2019, which will give us a much clearer idea of how the council can be restructured to provide the best value and quality of service to all residents”.

But now, the future of all of Lancashire’s councils could depend on whether the county can strike a devolution deal with the government, and the conditions attached to it. The region has been told that it should simplify its multi-layered local authority system in return for extra powers and cash.

Officials from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) informed a meeting of Lancashire’s 15 council leaders that a “revised” structure would be expected for a devolution settlement, Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver has revealed. Depending on any future agreement, that could result in all of the region’s councils – county, district and unitary – being radically redesigned or disappearing altogether in their current form.

The region would also have to create a new combined authority and establish an elected mayor – similar to the roles formed in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region – who would ultimately be responsible for the devolved arrangements.

Council Comments

Reaction so far from the district and city councils to the latest proposals has been limited. But West Lancashire Council leader Ian Moran said the government’s demand for reorganisation was far from definitive.

“They told us we should have a good look at it, but didn’t say we absolutely had to reorganise. Devolution is supposed to be about power coming back down to the people, not being sucked to the centre in Preston. It shouldn’t be about taking services further away from the people.

“If we have to merge any of the districts, then that is something for the districts themselves to decide. Senior civil servants have said that any combined authority should be based on local economic drivers – and ours are over towards Liverpool and Manchester. So whatever we do has got to be right for West Lancashire” Cllr Moran said.

The government has been offering local areas devolution deals for just over five years and, by 2019, ten agreements were in place with different parts of the country, six of which have resulted in the formation of mayor-led combined authorities.

The additional powers and cash on offer vary from one place to the next, but typically include control over integrated transport, adult education and strategic planning. The minimum cash offer from government for such a deal is usually an additional £30m every year for 30 years.

Some of the more ambitious agreements, such as that covering health in Greater Manchester, attract much greater sums. But the deals have proved politically and practically difficult to negotiate in some localities, not least here in Lancashire, where there are more councils involved than any other area which has so far agreed a devolved set-up.

As ever, to quote Lewis Carroll, ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today”.

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