Lancashire must move towards a combined authority and an elected mayor or it will miss out on vital Government support, Blackpool’s council leader has warned.
After his appointment as chairman of the Shadow Combined Authority for Lancashire, Coun Simon Blackburn will work with 15 individual council leaders across the county towards setting up the new authority next year.
He said: “The Government’s devolution agenda is very heavily dependent on combined authorities.
“It wouldn’t have been the process I necessarily would have chosen, but we are where we are. The Government has made it clear areas will get a better devolution deal if they have an elected mayor - they want accountability and can point to the success of London.
“Having been sceptical at the start, I am now of the view that if the devolution package is good enough, it could deliver resources of up to £1bn and that it is a real game changer.
“There is going to be an elected Mayor of Greater Manchester and Liverpool from next year and they will be able to go into Downing Street and negotiate direct.
“I would like us to adopt a mayoral model where the mayor chairs a meeting of all the council leaders in the county.
“Someone who can work across all the parties and inspire people.”
Coun Blackburn said financial pressures meant local authorities would be forced to work more closely together. He added: “Times are really hard financially. Is it realistic to think we can carry on doing things like we have been doing for the last 30 years?
“Is it realistic to think there can be 15 different councils in Lancashire without them sharing costs and resources?
“The Government has the power to come along and change it anyway, but I would much prefer it if we could come up with a deal for Lancashire.”
Coun Blackburn also believes a combined authority could better handle housing growth in the county.
At the moment each council has its own house-building target but densely populated areas like Blackpool struggle to find enough land to build on.
He said: “One of the biggest issues for Lancashire is housing reform. The housing benefit market inflates house prices in Blackpool, while Burnley has rows of houses which are very cheap, selling for £25,000 to £30,000.
“In the Ribble Valley they are resisting housing development, fearing it is changing the character of the area.
“But look at Lancashire as a whole and the targets are achievable by matching them with housing demand. There are some parts of the county with the potential for housing growth.”
As for whether Coun Blackburn would like to take on the role of elected Mayor himself, he is not ruling himself out.
He said: “There is a huge amount of work to be done before we get a decision on an elected Mayor.
“But there should be one because we don’t want to get left behind.
“Whether or not I am the right person for that job, we have to wait and see.”
Blackpool’s opposition group leader Coun Tony Williams is challenging the validity of the combined authority.
He has written to the Chancellor Philip Hammond asking him to look at the proposals and the consultation process.
Coun Williams said: “I have yet to meet any resident who has been consulted and I therefore feel that it was a closed shop consultation exercise.
“Taking away Blackpool’s unitary status is a huge decision which has been rushed through the council on a Labour vote with no real evidence of support from residents of this town
“I am demanding that a full and in-depth consultation is put into place with the whole of the town involved and that any further actions in regard to this initiative are put on hold until this council show a level of respect and democracy to the people of Blackpool.”
But Coun Blackburn hit back, saying: “By making these comments in public, he is deliberately misleading the people of Blackpool.
“Blackpool’s status as a unitary authority is completely unaltered by joining a combined authority.
“That fact, along with the details of the extensive independent consultation held with the residents and businesses of Lancashire (including Blackpool) some six months ago, was made crystal clear in the last report to the council - if he’d read it, he would have seen that 70 per cent of individuals who responded supported the formation of a combined authority, along with 82 per cent of businesses.”
The consultation report confirms 1,944 responses were received.
Of these 1,317 residents and 518 local authority employees took part in the consultation, as well as 35 businesses and organisations.
Promotion of the consultation reached an estimated 444,000 people and more than 15,000 people visited the consultation website over a six week period.
Wyre is the only council in Lancashire which has voted to opt out of the combined authority.
Its leader Coun Peter Gibson has branded the move a waste of money and fears it will lead to additional costs for the council.