The Curtain Has Only Just Gone Up
"SOME people say that local government reform isn't working for Cumbria - but the truth is it isn't finished, the curtain has only just gone up.
Back in January I urged the leaders of Cumbria's new unitary authorities to embrace a lucrative devolution deal and to start talks with Government as a matter of urgency.
Jonathan Brook, leader of Westmorland and Furness Council, indicated that any further change would take "several years". Mark Fryer, the leader of Cumberland, didn't reply at all. So much for seizing the day.
For those unfamiliar with the script of local government reform, Act One is the formation of two unitary authorities. Act Two would see the creation of a combined authority under an elected Mayor, bringing multi-billion-pound benefits to Cumbria. It is that Mayor, directly accountable to local people, that unlocks the bulk of the government funding and takes on powers that currently sit with Westminster.
Just look at what Conservative Mayor Ben Houchen is achieving on Teesside. This is an area with a proud industrial heritage. It is not too dissimilar to Workington. He has secured billions of pounds of investment, the return of steelmaking, and he is giving his community an even stronger voice on the national stage. Other regional Mayors - of all stripes - are delivering investment and giving local people a much greater say in what happens where they live.
Why then, are Labour and the Lib Dems in Cumbria blocking the vital second part of the Cumberland Conservatives' roadmap to local devolution? Why are they holding us back?
I understand why they might be reluctant to come out from behind the curtain after their underwhelming performance in Act One. But it is time to overcome their stage fright and get on with the show. For every moment that passes, more opportunities are passing us by.
There is no problem with 'Devolution': it is well-scripted, and we know it is working in other areas of England. The main actors in our two unitary authorities have made it past the audition stage. They should know their parts by now. Rehearsals are over. Many of those in leading roles are no stranger to the political stage - in fact some of the veterans serving on the two executives have been councillors since Adam was a lad!
Yet against all odds, Cumberland has managed to transform a dramatic production into a comedy of errors. The council had £30m annual savings projected following local government reform, yet they have managed to bankrupt the council with a whopping £28m projected overspend. It almost defies belief.
Cumberland had almost a year as a shadow authority to realise those savings - enough to knock 20 per cent off the average council tax bill. Instead, they ramped it up by almost seven per cent in Allerdale - one of the largest hikes in England. Cumberland Councillors voted last year to double their own allowances (backdated by six months) whilst failing to deliver on basic services, such as bin collection - and last week voted for a further increase. They've trebled the bill for councillors allowances in just 12 months.
Now they are failing the people of Cumberland again in an even more fundamental sense by not capitalising on the opportunity presented by devolution. The leadership seems content to preside over the managed decline of our towns and villages. Meanwhile, areas like Teesside reap the benefits of the mayoral system, embracing positive change. What we have in Cumberland is local Labour councillors turning down Government funding opportunities for political ideological reasons whilst pleading penury. And rather than seizing real investment opportunities, they have chosen instead to penalise ratepayers.
A Mayor would act as a local champion attracting investment to the area and acting as a powerful local voice in discussions with Government and other organisations. A representative with strategic oversight across the county, and with the democratic mandate to speak for a combined Cumbrian Mayor Combined Authority would ensure that the considerable investment brought about through a devolution deal could be focused in those areas where it is needed most.
It is regrettable that another stage prompt is necessary, but we need to see the second act. We have all paid for the tickets. If you can't deliver, please exit stage right."