Time for a City of East Lancashire

03/09/2003

Do you like paying Council Tax? No, I didn’t think you did. It seems an awful lot of money to be handing over to Hyndburn Borough Council, what on earth do they do with it? Well, pass it on to someone else is the answer for most of it. The fact is that Hyndburn Council is merely the collecting organization for most of the money. The vast majority of the cash is handed on to Lancashire County Council, some other bits go to pay for the Lancashire Constabulary and some of it goes on the Fire & Rescue Service. I haven’t got the exact figures in front of me but I estimate that for every pound Hyndburn Council collects in tax it will be lucky to get 10p in revenue. Look at it another way, the budget of the County Council must be roughly 100 times the budget of Hyndburn Council when you multiply this effect across Lancashire and add on all the extra grants that are available.

Which leads to the big issue. Next year we will almost certainly be given the opportunity of voting on massive changes to the way we are governed at local level in a referendum. We are all likely to be asked whether we want regional government for the North West and, if so, what kind of local council do we want. In this the Government is assuming that if we vote for regional government (a big ‘if’ in my view) we won’t be able to carry on with our current Hyndburn/Lancashire two council system, which seems reasonable. As a side issue I’m always amused by the passionate advocates of regional government because they have failed to grasp the hugely strong sense of community people have in east Lancashire. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have lamented to me the demise of the old Urban District Councils (UDCs) that ran each of our towns prior to the creation of Hyndburn Council in 1974. People are rightly proud of their own town and its traditions. It used to be said of the town where I grew up, Great Harwood, that ‘kick one and they all limp’. Well good, I’m really proud of that, proud of that sense of community. I’m proud of being working class and from Lancashire, proud that we were the first place on earth to industrialise, proud of the Accrington Pals, proud of my football team. They are all parts of our history, things from the past that make us the people we are today. We don’t want to be run by Oswaldtwistle, let alone Manchester or God forbid, London!

But the fact is we were let down by the old UDCs, just as we are currently being let down by the current two tier system. The UDCs were just way too small, for as the cities cleared their housing problems the UDCs had no financial clout to do the same. And it isn’t because the councillors are poor, in fact quite the reverse: most councillors, irrespective of Party, work hard and put in many hours for not much thanks and not a great deal of dosh. And it’s not the fault of the officers either: both Lancashire and Hyndburn have some outstanding officers, although I dare say that like MPs there’s a few duds. No, we are being let down by the structure. Let’s be honest: Hyndburn Council is just too small to deal strategically with some of the problems facing us, in the same way that Lancashire is too big and remote to respond effectively to local needs. The Area Councils look like a promising answer to people’s need for a local forum. But in terms of meeting our needs in the 21st century it’s time to face up to an uncomfortable truth: the towns of east Lancashire have much more in common with each other than we have with anyone else. Taken together we have a population larger than that of the City of Manchester. We are, to all intents and purposes, a city. Let’s proclaim ourselves one, the City of East Lancashire!

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