Leader's open letter, Bay unitary proposal

An open letter from Councillor Giles Archibald to residents of South Lakeland

South Lakeland has reached a crucial moment in its history and decisions taken over the coming months will have long-standing effects on the lives of all residents.

At stake are so many important issues, the economic vibrancy of the area; our ability to tackle climate change and look after the environment; our relationship with the National Health Service; the strength of local democracy; and, indeed, our sense of identity.

Why is this? It’s because the Government is inviting councils up and down the country to put forward proposals to create ‘unitary authorities’, in effect, ‘super councils’ which will be responsible for running all local services, instead of the current system where county councils manage some services and district councils, like South Lakeland, look after others.

Local government might seem like a dry topic, about which it is hard to get excited. But the way our services are managed and delivered makes a massive difference to everyone’s lives.

I have repeatedly said this is not the right time to be looking at local government reorganisation. Instead, councils should be concentrating on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, the Government has not yet published its devolution white paper, which would provide further detail about how it envisages local government being organised in the future and we don’t know what its plans are for the future of adult social care. Also, there is no agreement across all councils in Cumbria about how local government should be structured.

However, the Government has effectively ignored our concerns about the timing and has invited councils to prepare business cases for how local government should be organised going forward. So, we have to move on.

And that’s why I want to ask every resident in South Lakeland to give support to proposals to create a unitary authority based on the Morecambe Bay footprint of South Lakeland, Barrow and Lancaster. This is the model on which South Lakeland District Council is preparing a detailed business case. On December 8 the council will decide whether or not to submit it to the Government.

Cumbria County Council’s cabinet decided recently to submit proposals to replace the existing six district councils and the county council with a single unitary authority.

I think this would be a disaster for South Lakeland residents. A single Cumbria unitary would artificially divide the community based around the Bay. Carlisle is a remote centre for many people in the south of the county and would not be a good place for a new local authority HQ. Indeed, there is nowhere convenient in the county for all its widespread residents.

Independent research shows that in very large local authority units, voter turnout reduces and resident engagement diminishes.

I believe, indeed, I am convinced that a unitary authority based on Morecambe Bay, the area currently covered by Barrow Borough Council, Lancaster City Council and South Lakeland District Council, which is a more local geographical area, would be so much better for people in South Lakeland.

Morecambe Bay is a functioning economic area. Ninety six per cent of the resident labour force works in the area.

It is our healthcare area, sharing a footprint with the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust and with established links to the Morecambe Bay Clinical Commissioning Group and the Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Trust 

The Morecambe Bay authorities of South Lakeland, Barrow and Lancaster have shared ambitions to grow the economy. They also share a commitment to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, coastal erosion and to prevent flooding.

The boundaries created by the 1972 Local Government Act divided Barrow and parts of South Lakeland, historically both part of Lancashire, from Lancaster, although the area has retained its common identity. The creation of a Bay authority would put this right, sitting alongside a new unitary for the four northern and western districts of Cumbria and viable arrangements for the rest of Lancashire to the south.

Under a single Cumbria unitary each councillor would be likely to have around 6,000 residents to look after, far more than the current 2,000 for South Lakeland councillors. That is a tremendous amount of extra work and would make your councillors less locally accountable and might also put off some people, for example those who work or have children, from standing as councillors. This would take us back to the days when retired and independently wealthy people were running local government, that’s not good for democracy.

Find out about the proposal and give your views via an online survey or by contacting your local councillor. The Government will also ask you for your views at a later date.

I urge everyone in South Lakeland to make it totally clear that, if we are required to reorganise, you want to see a future council based on the Morecambe Bay area.

If we don’t make our voices heard loud and clear and take control of this issue, then we risk it taking control of us and being lumped into a Cumbria unitary authority or another less favourable arrangement that would not be in the best economic and social interests of South Lakeland residents.

Cllr Giles Archibald

Leader of South Lakeland District Council