The NLGN have a nack of being one step ahead with local government issues and they seem to have done it again – quietly beavering away over the past 12 months with their commission, and publishing it just at the moment that local government reorganisation becomes a live issue once more.
In my opinion, local government reform is the only way that Skelmersdale will reach its full potential. The current two-tier setup with the county council and the district council is cumbersome. It also makes it difficult with regeneration as to who is driving the process. Sometimes it is the county, as with Skelmersdale Partnerships, sometimes it’s the district, with the Skelmersdale Vision. A single authority, bringing a single strategic view, a sense of direction and clear accountability is needed for the town.
The NLGN report talks about city regions: how they have worked in other countries, and a model of how they could work in the UK. Not replacing existing authorities, but bringing them together to form a strategic alliance with delegated powers and funding – making it possible to move forward on city region-wide strategic initiatives such as transport, or helping the local economy.
In West Lancashire we seem to work in a bubble sometimes, the City Region proposals could force us to look over our boundaries to neighbours not necessarily in Lancashire. For example, the A5225 scheme through Wigan would have made a huge impact on the economy in Skelmersdale – there would be a single route from Skelmersdale, through the Wigan Borough and on to the M61 and the North East. However, this hasn’t been discussed in West Lancs and I haven’t seen any reference to it in the local papers. Literally a mile down the road, it has been the subject of great debate.
The problem for West Lancs, however, is that we are stuck between three natural city regions. We have Manchester to the east, Preston to the north and Liverpool to the south. Preston is possibly the most natural ally with the historical links though Lancashire County Council, but we have to recognise that many people in West Lancs travel towards Manchester or Liverpool for work and for shopping. This problem was the cause of the great “split” controversy a couple of years ago, where Skelmersdale was proposed to go into Greater Manchester and Ormskirk into Merseyside. It felt like no-one supported the idea – people wanted to stay in “lancashire”.
The City Regions model also doesn’t cover the unitary status for councils, suggesting that county regions could be created. It feels like an afterthought, and if implemented could end up with little change in the County areas, and perhaps no benefit to a little district like ours.
There is obviously a wider debate taking place about local government, as seen by Miliband’s leaked memo regarding unitaries. The NLGN report is timed perfectly to influence what might happen. I just hope that West Lancs isn’t squeezed out, just because it sits in the middle of three cities.