Phillippa Williamson: Looking to deliver the deal

Six months into her role at County Hall and Phillippa Williamson is at pains to put clear blue water between the new administration and its predecessor.

The party in charge may not have changed – the Conservatives kept control of Lancashire in May’s election – but the county council’s new leader wants to stress this is a very different regime.

She is keen to talk about a “completely new administration” and its new faces. Collaboration is a key word in her vocabulary. “We want to engage,” she explains.

That engagement includes building bridges with Lancashire’s district and unitary authorities with the aim of bringing everyone together in a meaningful way to talk sensibly with central government about the county’s economic future.

Sitting in her office in County Hall, coun Williamson, who was elected to the authority in 2017 to represent the Lancaster Rural North division, declares: “I’m interested in landing a ‘County Deal’ for Lancashire.”

To that end she has not given herself a specific portfolio job in the council’s cabinet, to give her “space” to work on wider priorities and the county’s strategic direction of travel.

A large part of that work has been “reconnecting” with the district and unitary councils, as well as the county’s “stakeholders and partners”. To that end regular leaders’ meetings with her counterparts in the county’s other 14 councils have been re-established.

We view business support as fundamental when it comes to supporting this levelling up agenda

Everyone may now be talking. However, the challenge she faces cannot be underestimated, given the collapse of earlier attempts to secure a devolution deal with government.

While Manchester and Liverpool’s city regions and their directly elected mayors have reaped the benefits of their agreements with the government Lancashire has floundered. The idea of a combined authority or directly elected leader for the county was unpalatable for some. Deep divisions were exposed.

However, the new County Deals that were announced by Boris Johnson this summer as part of his levelling up vision, have sparked new hope that progress can be made.  

Described as “bespoke to the needs of individual places” it is still unclear how they will work. But the aim is to take devolution beyond the largest cities, offering the rest of England the same powers metro mayors have gained over matters such as transport, skills and economic support.

Reflecting on Lancashire’s past devo failures coun Williamson says: “I’m not interested in the history; we want to look forwards.”

She adds: “Local government reform is something that for me has been a huge distraction for the county in terms of delivering on our economic agenda. We have wasted a huge amount of time and effort as a county council, as district and unitary councils, talking about it.”

She is optimistic and believes progress is being made towards a position where Lancashire can go and seek its deal. On top of that she adds: “I see great benefits for us working together as a collaborate 15.

She says all parties are really focused on what they can bring to the table to create that collective approach that can move things forward. “We’re edging our way towards that. There is a huge amount of goodwill,” she adds.

I’m encouraged by the willingness and the engagement. It has definitely helped having a new administration. They see us as much more open and collaborative and willing to have those sorts of conversations.

At the same time, she has also been in conversations with the government’s levelling up minister Neil O’Brien and his officials. And again, coun Williamson believes the signs are positive.

She says those talks have also been very open and adds: “They have been very supportive. What they’re looking for now is our assurance we can govern any deal in a sensible way.

Coun Williamson isn’t putting any timetable on the process though she says: “We have been moving at quite pace. We don’t know the government’s timetable for levelling up. Hopefully we can be part and parcel of that.”

In the meantime, there are also other challenges for Lancashire that need to be met head on. They include skills.

To that end the education brief in Lancashire’s cabinet has been extended to include skills. The leader says: “Skills are a real challenge.

“Some businesses need help to reskill their workforce.Equally we need to make sure young people coming out of school, universities and colleges have the skills relevant to the businesses in the county.

Business support also remains a priority. Coun Williamson, who is also keen to point out the business experience of some of her senior cabinet colleagues, says Lancashire is committed to retaining programmes such as Boost, though how it and other support projects will be funded in future remains unclear.

She says: “We view business support as fundamental when it comes to supporting this levelling up agenda and moving us into the post-Covid stage.

SMEs are the engine room of the economy across the county. We have got to be able to support them.”

The future of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) also remains unclear. But again, coun Williamson is clear in her view. She says: “All local authorities in Lancashire are agreed that we need a business voice.”

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