Devolution

A government letter rejecting the Greater Lincolnshire devolution bid has backed the district councils’ argument that it’s not the right time for local reorganisation, leaders have said.

The letter from Housing Minister and Newark MP Robert Jenrick turning down the plans was addressed to Conservative MPs in our region. It announced devolution plans for Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset.

However, in response to other applications, Mr Jenrick said: “Given the pressures councils face this winter with the pandemic, I believe it would not be right at this time for them to further progress or focus on ideas for reform.

“The pandemic has rightly necessitated resources across Whitehall being re-allocated to tackling COVID, and this must be Whitehall’s and town halls’ number one priority at present.

“And, as outlined, there is no expectation that such restructuring is a Whitehall requirement.”

District Council leaders have welcomed the comments, which appear to back their own concerns when Lincolnshire County Council leader Martin Hill and his counterparts at North and North East Lincolnshire initially launched their bid in July.

The leaders acknowledge reform is needed, but say that a solution that works long-term is also required.

Greater Lincolnshire council leaders Rob Waltham, Martin Hill and Philip Jackson wrote to government in May.

“We are pleased that central government has put the potential for local government reorganisation in Lincolnshire on hold for the time being,” they said in a joint statement.

“This enables district councils to put our full focus on protecting the county’s most vulnerable and keeping essential services running during the pandemic.

“We have been very consistent and clear in our message: now is not the right time for local government re-organisation due to COVID and it’s reassuring that Government has shown its support for our view.”

When the news was announced last week Councillor Hill said the authority would continue to work on the “best way forward”.

Boston Borough Council leader Councillor Paul Skinner warned the issue was “not going away”.

The leaders all agreed to continue working together, adding: “If government decides to resurrect its plans for devolution or reorganisation in Lincolnshire, our residents and businesses can be assured that we are well prepared to respond and secure the best outcomes for the residents and businesses of our districts.”

Lincolnshire’s hopes for devolution have fallen at the first hurdle, but council leaders say they will continue to push forward.

The leaders of Lincolnshire County Council, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire councils wrote to government ministers in May, calling for devolution talks to begin, and were reportedly at the front of the queue with Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Somerset and Surrey.

However, council leaders on Thursday confirmed government ministers had written to tell them they didn’t make the cut.

Lincolnshire County Council leader Martin Hill has previously said there was “no loss of appetite” for devolution.

On Thursday, he said: “I have received a letter from government regarding our devolution bid. While we have not been selected to progress at this stage, we are encouraged to continue working-up proposals.

“We will continue to have further discussions with colleagues in Greater Lincolnshire on the best way forward whilst we await the delayed white paper which will be hopefully help  further  inform our future plans.”

North East Lincolnshire Council Leader Councillor Philip Jackson said: “Although the government has confirmed other areas will be in this first tranche, we’re pleased that the minister has written to all three upper tier leaders in Lincolnshire asking us to continue dialogue with government with a view to progressing devolution once the white paper is published. ”

The move sparked a row between upper and lower tier authorities when it was announced earlier this year.

Those in favour of the proposals said it would create an “economic powerhouse” and would help with post-COVID-19 recovery.

However, the seven district councils said the time was “not right” and that the focus should be on tackling the virus. They were also angered over a lack of consultation on the plans.

What does the “Greater Lincolnshire” area include?

The district councils have also indicated they may want to put forward their own proposals which could potentially differ from Councillor Hill and his partners’ vision.

Boston Borough Council leader and Lincolnshire County Councillor Paul Skinner warned this wasn’t the end.

“[The decision] doesn’t mean it’s going away, it just means we weren’t as ready as three other counties that were selected,” he said.

“I don’t think this will be going away, there are reasons to consider it.”

Details have yet to be confirmed over what devolution would specifically mean for the ten upper and district councils which cover Greater Lincolnshire.

It would see several, if not all, the existing councils abolished with suggestions that a replacement system would range from one to three separate councils.

Local Government minister Simon Clark indicated previously that any devolution bid would have to include a mayor.

However, that idea was part of the reason why a previous £450million devolution deal was rejected by Lincolnshire councillors in 2016.

Lincolnshire County Council leaders have said there will be “no loss of appetite” for devolution.

Members of Lincolnshire County Council voted by a majority in favour of a motion which aimed to reaffirm the authority’s commitment to local reorganisation.

Conservative Leader of the Council Martin Hill said: “Greater Lincolnshire, not just this council, is actually very keen to be preserved as a distinct identity.

“In the national scene, we’re also keen to actually progress with more devolution and take advantage of the opportunities which the government has offered.

“There is prospect of extra funding for this area, but also… it’s pretty clear that like some of the other areas which have mayors… then you are considered to be more in the more in the sight of government.”

He added: “It is important that we actually reaffirm our commitment to devolution and in the situation as we currently understand it, because whatever happens I don’t think there will be any loss of appetite in Lincolnshire to one day get to devolution.”

Lincolnshire’s leaders have recently butted heads over devolution.

Opposition councillors admitted devolution was “inevitable” but say the current plans are the “best of a bad deal” and should be put on hold during the pandemic.

They questioned a recent silence from government since the resignation of MP Simon Clarke and queried why resources were being spent on devolution when the focus, they said, should be concentrated on “matters of urgency” such as COVID-19.

Labour Councillor Robin Renshaw initially accused the motion of containing “mistruths” but later accepted that was wrong and instead called them “mistakes”.

He pointed to previous statements by the leaders of district councils, who were initially unaware of moves by the upper tier authorities in Greater Lincolnshire to restart devolution talks, calling for the current plans to be halted after they were not consulted.

He added the “precarious” financial situation the region found itself in was down to government in the first place.

However, he said: “Although we will be against it, it is the best of a bad deal and it’s inevitable as the government’s got the numbers of MPs to do to push it through.”

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