Three neighbouring councils have confirmed support for the next steps in a process that could lead to a formal bid for a new authority around Morecambe Bay.
Barrow Borough Council, Lancaster City Council and South Lakeland District Council have each agreed that a ‘high-level’ case be investigated to develop the idea of a new-look unitary council for the Morecambe Bay area comprising the three districts.
The move was approved at Full Council meetings in each area over the past week, in anticipation that Government may call for ideas to be presented on local government reform.
The Government has indicated it intends to publish a ‘White Paper’ on local government reorganisation and invite submissions of interest from councils on preferred options.
The Government has suggested it will only be considering options that replace the current ‘two tier’ system of district councils and county councils.
The county councils in both Cumbria and Lancashire have already put forward ideas for new arrangements based on existing boundaries.
District council leaders in Barrow, Lancaster and South Lakeland have all expressed the view that discussion about local government reorganisation is not ideal at a time when the councils are busy with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic response.
They add that if the Government is intending to bring forward the White Paper – and if that confirms the existing two-tier system is not an option – then it is important that the three councils offer clarity on their positions and consider alternative ideas they believe could deliver the best outcomes for their respective communities.
The Full Council decisions mean the three councils have confirmed that they will explore the case for a new Bay authority – which could 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.
They will now develop a high-level case that will enable the councils to further examine the potential benefits of a cross-county-boundary 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.
It will also examine ways 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 potential for future Combined Authority arrangements, enabling a fuller devolution of resources and powers from Government, will also be considered.
The three councils already have a successful economic partnership, with the authorities working together on projects to attract more investment and employment to support economic sustainability and prosperity in the Morecambe Bay area.
The Bay economic partnership has already achieved notable results, including a successful joint submission to be 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.
In addition, the economic partnership is finalising a shared funding bid for the combined area to support further action to address the climate emergency, build local community wealth, and improve the well-being of residents.
Lancaster and South Lakeland also worked together on an award-winning planning policy to protect and enhance the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Now councillors have given the green light to look in more detail at the opportunities for an even closer partnership the next stage will include engagement with local communities, businesses and organisations to gather views on the idea of a Bay authority, with a high-level case coming back to meetings of the Full Councils in each area for approval before any proposal is sent to Government.
Councillor Ann Thomson, Leader of Barrow Borough Council, said: “All three councils have now agreed to create a high-level case for a Bay authority.
“We don’t know when this White Paper will be published, but the right thing to do is to make sure we are prepared and have considered the merits of a new unitary council for the area comprising of the three districts for the benefit of all those living and working in our areas.
“Crucial to us all now is ensuring we engage with our residents and communities to gather a breadth of views to inform a case which would be brought back to Full Council at a future date.’’
Councillor Dr Erica Lewis, Leader of Lancaster City Council, said: “Local government reorganisation isn’t a topic I would have prioritised by choice, but the fact it has been pushed up the agenda by the Government means we must be ready to make our case in the event that a White Paper is published.
“The current proposals being put forward in Lancashire and Cumbria are based on the existing county boundaries, whereas we believe that the option for a cross-boundary authority around Morecambe Bay is worthy of investigation.
“By exploring the potential for a unitary authority based on our three councils further, we will be able to ensure our options remain open and be ready to make our case based on what will best serve our residents and our region, and not simply lines on a map.”
Councillor Giles Archibald, Leader of South Lakeland District Council, said: “There is no clear consensus across Cumbria about the best way forward on public sector reform in the county, with various options already suggested and being discussed.
“Ideally we would have liked to know a bit more about the details in the White Paper and some clarity on what the Government thinking is before embarking on this exercise. But, if we are invited to consider options, and if the current system is not going to be acceptable to Ministers, then we owe it to our residents to look at viable alternatives that we believe would offer the most positive benefits for our communities.
“This work will now allow us to examine in greater detail the merits of a Bay authority, building on the existing strong economic partnership we have established and developing ideas around the current shared health, social and economic geography of the Bay area.’’