Recommendations are due to be considered by three neighbouring councils that could pave the way for a formal bid for a new unitary authority around Morecambe Bay.
Barrow Borough Council, Lancaster City Council and South Lakeland District Council are each taking reports to the next scheduled Full Council meetings on the issue of local government reorganisation.
The Government has indicated it intends to publish a ‘White Paper’ on local government reform, possibly this Autumn, and invite submissions of interest from councils on preferred options.
Council leaders therefore believe it is important that the three councils consider appropriate options that they think will deliver the best outcomes for their respective communities.
In order to offer clarity on the three councils’ current position, the reports will recommend the Leaders and Chief Executives of the councils be authorised to develop a high level case for a new unitary council for the Morecambe Bay area comprising the three districts.
A unitary council would merge the three district councils and draw down certain powers from the county councils, to create a new single tier authority for the area responsible for local government functions.
The development of a high level case would enable the councils to further examine the potential benefits of a cross county boundary unitary proposal based on the existing functioning economic geography, health footprint and strong community links across the Bay area, and the potential to further drive economic, social and environmental benefits for the combined area’s residents, businesses and visitors.
Any case would build on the existing successful collaborative working and economic partnership between the three councils, which aims to attract more investment and employment to support economic sustainability and prosperity in the Morecambe Bay area.
An early success for the partnership came when a joint submission by South Lakeland District Council, Lancaster City Council and Barrow Borough Council was one of only two “rural” bids in the UK to be accepted by the Arts Council last year to develop a ‘Cultural Compact’ around Morecambe Bay, harnessing cultural and creative opportunities to boost the local economy.
The Bay economic partnership is also currently finalising a shared proposal for the combined area to support further action to address the climate emergency, build local community wealth, and improve the well-being of residents.
Council leaders now believe the opportunities of a cross-boundary partnership should be explored further, as part of discussions about devolution and potential local government reorganisation.
The case for a new unitary authority would not only consider economic benefits but also opportunities to improve local government and service delivery across the Bay, giving greater value for money, generating savings, and providing stronger strategic and local leadership.
The case would look at opportunities to work at greater strategic scale and the potential of future Combined Authority arrangements, enabling a fuller devolution of resources and powers from Government.
Subject to approval by each authority’s meetings of Full Council (see Notes below), any case developed would be subject to further engagement with local communities and agreement by the respective councils before any formal submission is made to government.
In a statement, the Leaders of the three councils, Councillor Ann Thomson of Barrow Borough Council, Councillor Dr Erica Lewis of Lancaster City Council and Councillor Giles Archibald of South Lakeland District Council, said: “The Government has indicated that they want to look at local government reform and at some point will be inviting proposals.
“It is therefore important that, even at this incredibly busy time when we are all occupied with the ongoing Covid pandemic response, we need to consider what we believe could be in the best long-term interests of our communities and our services.
“Other councils in Lancashire and Cumbria have started talking about what they consider to be the best options, so we want to offer clarity to our communities about our position.
“A report will be going to each of our councils in the next few weeks recommending that we work to develop a high level case to explore and describe the possible benefits of a new unitary authority, based on the Bay.
“We will be engaging with our communities, businesses and organisations to gather views on the idea and that will all feed into the discussions, with a final case coming back to our councils for approval before any proposal would be sent to government.’’