Lancashire County Council opposition parties call for Covid role - but leader says it could 'hinder' efforts to tackle the crisis

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Opposition parties on Lancashire County Council have called on the authority’s Conservative leader to put politics aside – and co-operate with them over the decisions being taken to get the county through the coronavirus crisis.

They have written to Geoff Driver to ask him to form a cross-party working group to plan for the next phases of the pandemic – including the eventual lifting of the lockdown.

In a letter seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Independents group said that there needed to be a more effective method of answering questions raised by opposition members – and taking on board their ideas.

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“Exiting the lockdown has risks and benefits and it is important that these are managed and the conflicting needs are balanced – which is best achieved through involvement of all groups on the council and with public consensus,” the letter says.

Can Lancashire's politicians find consenus during the pandemic?Can Lancashire's politicians find consenus during the pandemic?
Can Lancashire's politicians find consenus during the pandemic?

“Similarly, restarting Lancashire’s economy will require a significant amount of forward planning and engagement with local businesses and the public at large. We believe that the best outcomes for all will be achieved by working together as county councillors from all parties.”

The lead signatory, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali, said that other parties had been sidelined so far – unlike in authorities elsewhere in the country.

“County Cllr Driver should be involving us in these decisions, which have an impact on the economy in Lancashire and on people’s lives.

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“I hope he will listen to common sense and do what other leaders have done and work on a cross-party basis,” County Cllr Ali added.

But County Cllr Driver said that all members of the county council were receiving weekly briefings from the chief executive – and questioned the Labour leader’s motives.

“It’s shameful that he is playing party politics with this – if it was a genuine offer [to help], he would have just sent the letter to me, not copied it to the media and the Labour group whip before I’d even read it.

“We’re the administration and we’re running the county council, along with the officers, through these really troubled times.

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“A cross-party working group would be more of a hindrance than a help in terms of trying to get through this major crisis.

“I have regular briefings with the chief executive and director of finance and my cabinet colleagues have regular briefings and discussions with the [relevant] executive director,” added County Cllr Driver, who last week revealed that more autonomy had been given to council officers to help respond to the crisis.

All meetings of the county council have been suspended since mid-March because of the coronavirus restrictions. The authority is operating under its urgent decision procedure where executive matters are decided by the council leader in consultation with the relevant cabinet member.

Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat group, David Howarth, said that all parties should be involved in navigating a way through a crisis which affects every corner of the county.

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“It’s very disappointing that when we raise the issue of having some input, County Cllr Driver goes into petty yah-boo-hiss politics.

“I’m sure residents want to see politicians pulling together, rather than the opposition groups being kept in the dark,” said County Cllr Howarth, who added that he appreciated the efforts made by chief executive Angie Ridgwell to brief all councillors on the latest developments.

Those briefings are now being supplemented by an extra weekly update specifically for leaders and deputy leaders of all political groups.

County Cllr Gina Dowding, the sole Green Party member on the authority – who also signed the letter on behalf of the group of four other independent county councillors – said she hoped the current crisis could offer an opportunity to create a less divisive political atmosphere at County Hall.

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“Sadly, relationships between the ruling Conservative group and other political parties have not been good for years – and things appeared to deteriorate at the beginning of this crisis.

“I really hope that we can now put the past behind us – certainly for the next few months – and establish some trust that we are all working for the best for the residents of Lancashire. I’m totally convinced that’s what they want – regardless of who they voted for,” County Cllr Dowding said.

The signatories of the opposition group letter also paid tribute to the tireless work of county council staff “to mitigate the worst impact of the rise in numbers of Covid-19 cases across the county – we are all eternally indebted and grateful to [them],” it read.