Councillors have backed a bid to create a new unitary authority around Morecambe Bay, after hearing the proposal had attracted significant local support.
There is strong backing for the Bay authority plan, as evidenced by the results of surveys, independent opinion polls, virtual engagement events and feedback from hundreds of key stakeholders, businesses, community and youth groups and parish and town councils.
Around 4,000 people responded during a three-week consultation and businesses and organisations sent in letters of endorsement.
Under the proposal, Barrow Borough Council, Lancaster City Council and South Lakeland District Council would be replaced with a newly created, single tier ‘unitary’ local authority for the area.
The new Bay unitary authority would continue to deliver existing services provided by the three councils, but would also take on the services currently run by Cumbria and Lancashire County Councils in the area.
Independent polling of more than 1,000 adults by polling company Survation showed 60% of people believe the area would be best served by a unitary council for Morecambe Bay, compared to just 30% favouring a county-wide unitary for Cumbria and separate arrangements for Lancashire.
A joint survey by the three councils that gathered nearly 3,000 responses showed 85% of people in the area favoured a Bay authority over a county-wide unitary.
After considering the evidence of local support and examining the full proposal, special Full Council meetings of all three councils today (8 December) agreed the Bay proposal should be submitted to Government.
The full proposal presents the case for a new unitary council for the Bay, focussed on the cohesiveness of the area and its communities.
It indicates how by working together with a range of organisations in the Bay area, the new authority will drive positive change on shared priorities including building community power and engagement, reducing inequality and improving wellbeing, building community wealth and tackling the climate emergency.
The detailed document being submitted to Government argues that joining up Barrow, Lancaster and South Lakeland offers the best solution for residents and businesses in the three areas and that by creating a second unitary in the north of Cumbria - consisting of Allerdale, Carlisle, Copeland and Eden council areas - the two unitaries would be on a footprint that follows ‘natural geography’.
The document says: “For the Bay there is a coherent functional economic area that we organise around and 96% of people live and work in the area’’, and argues that the creation of the county in 1974 brought together areas around the mountains, but operationally there remains a particular distinction between north and south.
It continues: “The Bay and North Cumbria solution results in two sustainable unitary authorities that have the ability and resilience to be financially viable, represent a significant population and can provide a platform for wider regional co-operation and unitary solutions.’’
The proposal notes the discussions which have taken place with key partner organisations, including police, fire services and health authorities. All have identified what would need to be addressed in the implementation of the proposal, and the proposal concludes that all arrangements are deliverable.
In a joint statement, the leaders of the three district councils, Councillor Ann Thomson from Barrow Borough Council, Councillor Dr Erica Lewis from Lancaster City Council and Councillor Giles Archibald from South Lakeland District Council, said: ““We believe that the option of a Bay unitary, linking up our three councils, has the potential to deliver the best outcomes for our communities and it seems that our communities agree.
“We have been delighted with the positive reaction to our proposal and that so many people have taken the trouble to engage with us, learn about the proposal and share their views.
“What is clear is that this proposal has caught the imagination and just about everyone that we have spoken to agrees that it is an exciting prospect, an opportunity to deliver lasting and positive change in local government across the Bay area.
“We had a very short timeframe to conduct this work and pull this proposal together to meet the Government’s deadlines. Running an engagement exercise on such an important issue during a pandemic lockdown was certainly not ideal, especially as we are all already extremely busy with the Covid-19 response.
“We held virtual events with businesses, community and youth groups and parish and town councils, set up an online survey, commissioned independent polling and received lots of emails and letters from people with their comments.
“We recognised that there would be some unique challenges with a proposal that looked to link up councils from different counties. But we have always said that we should not be constrained by lines on a map, that we should be looking at an arrangement that works in the best interests of our residents, businesses and organisations.
“What became clear from our discussions, including with the police, fire and health authorities, is that this proposal is deliverable and we have had some very positive feedback.
“The results of the engagement are a clear endorsement of our proposal and we think we have presented a very strong and viable case. The Government asked for evidence of local support and we believe we have delivered that. It is now for the Government to decide whether to listen to those views and take the Bay proposal forward.’’
Plans for a new Bay authority were developed in response to a letter from Government in October sent to councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset inviting submissions on ‘locally-led proposals for unitary government’ in those areas.
Councils were asked by the Government to consider ways to replace the existing two-tier system of county and district councils with a system where there is a single tier for any given area. Lancaster was able to join with Barrow and South Lakeland in making a proposal because the invitation included an option to include an adjacent authority.
The three councils submitted a joint outline proposal for a new Bay authority on 9 November and agreed to develop the full proposal for submission by the Government’s deadline of 9 December 2020.
Government will consider the proposals submitted and will determine which, if any, options it wishes to take forward for further public consultation.
The full Bay unitary proposal document and public opinion survey results can be viewed alongside the agenda here.