Sands are shifting on the bay

Change that will be as sweeping as the dramatic vistas across Morecambe Bay is in the air.

Work is underway that could pave the way for a formal bid to create a new local authority around the bay area – uniting north Lancashire and south Cumbria into a formidable force.

The present district councils of Lancaster, South Lakeland and Barrow have shared ambitions to grow their multi-billion pound economy. In future they may be doing so under one single Morecambe Bay banner.

Local government secretary Robert Jenner has called on them to submit a preliminary bid for reorganisation by November 9.

It is a tight timetable for local authorities already battling with the impact of coronavirus on their communities, but despite the fact they would prefer to be putting all their focus on the pandemic, it is one they are looking to meet.

Their leaders and chief executives are now developing “a high level case” for such a new council setup.

It would merge the three and draw down certain powers from Lancashire and Cumbria county councils, to create a new single tier authority responsible for local government functions.

Developing the case for such a move enables the councils to further examine the potential benefits of a single authority, based on the existing functioning economic geography, health footprint and strong community links across the bay.

Alongside the great visions for the bay, perhaps a focused directive to redevelop brownfield sites for modern commercial purposes

The case will also look to build on the existing economic partnership between the three councils, already working closely together to promote The Lancaster and South Cumbria Economic Region and to attract more investment and job opportunities.

The region is already an economic powerhouse in its own right. The visitor economy alone is worth £2bn with advanced manufacturing and engineering supporting 18,000 local jobs. Businesses with major operations here include BAE Systems which builds submarines at Barrow.

Figures earlier this year put the bay area’s combined GVA at more than £7bn and it is home to some 13,000 businesses, including world leaders in their sectors. Health and higher education also play a large part in its economic wellbeing.

That strength, coupled with a feeling on both sides of the Lancashire/Cumbria border that they are often overlooked because they sit at the very edge of their current counties, has given the unitary concept appeal.

Lancaster City Council leader Dr Erica Lewis points to the fact Morecambe Bay is a functioning economic area and it is not all about tourism. She says: “There is highly skilled manufacturing here that is really important, not just to the region but to the country.

Dr Lewis also talks of the area’s strong existing ties. Before local government reorganisation in the early 1970s much of South Lakeland and the Furness peninsula was, like Lancaster, part of the historic red rose county.

“Family ties and work ties can stretch over generations and we really need to create council areas that people can identify with,” she adds.

That’s another reason why she believes a Morecambe Bay authority makes more sense than the reorganisation proposal from County Hall in Preston.

That plan would see Lancaster and Morecambe to become part of a unitary authority along with Blackpool, Wyre, Fylde and the Ribble Valley.

Those are areas that people in Lancaster don’t identify with, she adds, and talks of “drawing boundaries for the convenience of Whitehall” rather than creating the best council to support people and businesses in the area.

She also believes businesses would benefit from a bay authority, rather than County Hall, being in the driving seat in areas such as improving local transport links, with a feeling that in the past the needs of North Lancashire have been overlooked.

An authority based on the Morecambe Bay area would make much more sense than one based on Cumbria

Dr Lewis says: “Transport is a big issue, that ability to advocate for road and rail links and more sustainable transport options around the bay is incredibly important.”

South Lakeland council leader Giles Archibald also talks of strong existing ties and “shared ambitions”, not only to grow the bay economy but also to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

He believes now “is not a good time to be talking about local government reorganisation” but adds: “If local government reform is to take place in future and unitary authorities are created, I firmly believe an authority based on the Morecambe Bay area would make much more sense than one based on Cumbria.”

“We have complementary businesses and industries and we are quite a powerful area when you look at our economy. We should be working together and we need to do what is best for our local residents and our businesses.”

He says that there are still a number of unknowns, including the possibility of a wider devolution deal linked to any reorganisation and he adds: “We need to know more about what that would look like and what benefits it would bring to the area.”

The case being put together for the bay is in anticipation of a White Paper on local government reorganisation that is in the pipeline.

Barrow Council leader Ann Thomson says: “We don't know when it will be published, but the right thing to do is to make sure we are prepared and have considered the merits of a new unitary council.”

She also believes that as part of the process it is crucial that the three districts engage with their communities and get their views.

The view of Hannah Hughes, head of law firm Harrison Drury’s Lancaster office, is that a bay local authority can help to deliver major economic projects.

She says: “What is important will be the ability as a united front to get these big plans off the drawing board and moving forward to bring the economic benefits to fruition.”

They include the vision for Eden Project North, intended to transform the area by attracting millions of visitors, and the potential ‘northern tidal power gateway’, a concept which is in its early stages. The proposal is to provide a road link across the bay to incorporate tidal turbines.

Hannah says: “Despite the preoccupation with Covid-19 there is a keen interest in getting northern Lancashire and Cumbria competing on an economic level with other areas in the north.

A combined authority around Morecambe Bay combining the neighbouring councils of Barrow, Lancaster and South Lakeland could certainly help to achieve these objectives.

She adds: “One of the greatest challenges for a unified authority would be developing the new industrial and commercial areas the region desperately needs.

With most of Lancaster city built-up and densely populated, and much of the bay’s coastal regions prone to flooding and protected as green belts and wetlands, there is little space for commercial expansion.

“Alongside the great visions for the bay, perhaps a focused directive to redevelop brownfield sites for modern commercial purposes could help attract more business to the region.”

  • To read this feature in full and access further Lancashire business news, advice and analysis subscribe to Lancashire Business View magazine or join the LBV Hub from just £2.50 per month. Click here to subscribe now.