Preston needs changing to stay the same…

Preston City Councillor Bill Shannon, (LibDem, Ingol), has set out why he believes the city council requires serious reform if it is to survive in the long-term. In short, Cllr. Shannon believes Preston can no longer remain as a mid-sized unit on the banks of the River Ribble, constrained by the compromise boundaries drawn around it forty-ish years ago.

Whilst disagreeing with Cllr. Shannon on certain subjects I won’t go into here, he’s absolutely right about the future of our city. For Preston to survive, it needs to change, and that means a slow but sure process of amalgamating services as a precursor to full merger with neighbouring administrations.

The fix-and-fudge of local government reform generations ago has left its mark across the country, particularly England where there’s been less change than in either Scotland or Wales. Almost all the local authorities created in the 1970s as a compromise position to the contentious Redcliffe-Maud report remain in place today, their sizes and shapes unmoved despite mammoth changes in population, work-load and responsibilities, employment and the like.

Nobody in Manchester, for example, can fully explain why the council area is such an elongated blob. Of course cynics can suggest plenty of reasons – it kept out largely Tory-leaning bits in Trafford and the semi-rural north, it ensured the Airport and its growth area had to use the “Manchester” name, and so on. Generations away from the map redrawing, the reality on the ground is a population almost unrelated to the official demarcation lines.

Preston, like Manchester, is a city constrained by the flicks of an administrator’s pencil. The city doesn’t stop at the Ribble; people who live to the south are no less “Prestonian”, or less likely to work in Preston, on the grounds of living on the opposite side of an arbitrary border.  The reality of life in this part of Lancashire has seen Preston grow in stature and relevance, and all within the lines of a borough decided upon on a coin-toss in the 1970s.

The financial consequence for the city and its people is profound and dangerous. The only way to safeguard the integrity of Preston, and to ensure the financial security for the services provided for people who live here, is to be bold on the manner in which administrations are formed.

Cllr. Shannon builds a two-step process. Initially councils need to share services, cutting back on duplication which builds up in the everyday processes of providing day-to-day services. As Preston is a two-tier city, served by 57 city councillors and ten County Councillors, there’s plenty of duplication amongst the administrative scaffolding around the representative buildings housed here. Numerous towns and cities across the country are dealing with the Government’s budget slashing by sharing services, and this process can only continue.

The next step, hinted at in Cllr. Shannon’s statement, is a full merger with neighbouring authorities, and is something I’ve always supported. It’s not enough for back-room staff in Preston to work alongside those in the Boroughs of Fylde and South Ribble. Preston is an economic possibility stifled by its status, locked in by suspicious and cynical council leaders in neighbouring towns.

The modern economic reality is too serious for such parochialism. Our city boundaries need to respect that work, study and play in this part of Central Lancashire is no longer respectful of invisible lines drawn on across rivers and along roads. There’s no legitimate reason for South Ribble, Chorley or Fylde being separate when hundreds of thousands of residents already treat Preston as their “hub” for employment, university or college study, or social/piss-up outpost. There’s no legitimate reason why, having cooperated in reducing costs by merging backroom jobs, local councils can’t take the natural step to amalgamate.

My principle is “sphere of influence”. If you live in Tarleton, you’re within the Southport “sphere of influence”, only to be denied by the decision to create Sefton in the 1970s. Preston suffers the same – thousands of potential workers, students, and wealth creators living in Bamber Bridge, Leyland, Chorley, Kirkham, Lytham, all denied by an arbitrary line on a map.

Let’s respect opportunity more than geography. I’ve no time for the types in historic county organisations who wish to reclaim parts of the world which have no existed in forty or more years. I don’t accept calls to “bring back” such places as Middlesex or Westmorland, no more than I do any request to scrap decimal currency.

There’s far too much broken with our democracy – the voting systems at local councils are as close to “corrupt” as you can get, and Scotland is proof of how to resolve that simply by converting to the STV voting system. One other issue is the size and composition of the councils at this level – outdated boundaries drawn for partisan reasons. Cllr. Shannon says we need the “necessary courage” to create a new council, what would inevitably be called “Greater Preston”. I agree with him.

“Preston” was once over  half the size it is now, growing in size only when the separate borough of Fulwood was added in the 1970s. Now the next step has to be taken, not just to correct the problems of Prestonians living far beyond official borders, but to ensure the financial security of Lancashire’s true heart. Anything else is not an option – staying still won’t mean staying the same.

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Lancashire – Boundary Review, take 2

And so it’s here, Schrödinger’s review, a wholesale review of Parliamentary boundaries which is both alive and dead, relevant and pointless, current and abandoned. Is it ongoing whilst also aware of its demise? It could be worth sitting down with a large cup of tea, or something stronger, to consider its position. First of all, a personal point. Whilst I had every faith that the Commission would take some notice of the Liberal Democrat proposals I supported (and in some cases assisted in selling at two public meetings), it appears that we failed to convince the scribes there to come round to our way of thinking. In some parts of this region the revised recommendations are – somehow – worse than the already cuckoo-bananas initial ideas. I challenge anyone to find a smaller community than “Reddish North” to be name-checked in a constituency. Anyway, to focus on the red rose county, here’s what the Commission now think should be the parliamentary make-up of Lancashire. You’ll find the maps for Lancashire over here.

Blackburn, Blackpool North and Fleetwood and Blackpool South are all unchanged from the initial proposals.

 Burnley and Accrington East and Pendle are significantly different from the initial proposals. Burnley is no longer divided somewhat arbitrarily across the town centre, which is a breakout of normality. It’s good to see Accrington isn’t cut up like a badly hacked onion either, though the justification for joining the two towns together is still fairly flimsy. There’s something of the “flat map syndrome” about it to my eyes, but at least the word “Pendle” has re-appeared on a constituency map. No explanation behind the reason to ditch it in the first place, by the way.

 The seat of Chorley has been left untouched, meaning it follow the size and shape of the council boundaries as initially proposed, as will Fylde.

 In the west of Lancashire, there’s a slightly different shape and a familiar name for Lancaster and Wyre, a modified version of the initially recommended “Lancaster”. The boundary alteration is the loss of Greyfriars, the most Fulwoodian of all Preston’s Fulwood wards, which is moved from Preston to join the towns of the A6 corridor all the way up to Lancaster city centre.

As ever, the city of Lancaster is split in half at Skerton, allowing Morecambe and Lunesdale to remain unchanged, All three parties agreed with each other on the “Fishwick issue”, brought about by the Commission initially proposing that the Preston ward of Fishwick should be attached to the rural expanse of Ribble Valley.

To balance up the numbers, Fishwick is now back with Preston, which loses Greyfriars but is otherwise exactly the same, so if these changes actually make it through the Commons (stop laughing), the constituency would be formed from almost the entire city, omitting Lea/Cottam, Greyfriars and the rural communities to the north. The modified Ribble Valley is essentially the seat fought at the 2010 election, taking in Bowland, Clitheroe, Longridge and Bamber Bridge/Walton-le-Dale. The ne thing this time round is the addition of Rishton and Great Harwood (dare I suggest amending the name to “Valleys of Ribble and Hynd”?).

South Ribble and West Lancashire have not been changed either, meaning that the former stretches from Leyland to the Southport border, crossing the River Douglas, and the latter brings together Ormskirk, Skelmersdale and all points surrounding. This leaves us with two very peculiar East Lancashire seats indeed, and these really are the Commission at their most…erm….well, peculiar. The new Rossendale and Oswaldtwistle gets a bonus point for mentioning Oswaldtwistle (let’s please have an honourable member for Oswaldtwistle.). The geography of the area is a bit tenuous, to put it nicely. I suppose it’s something that the connecting road is tarmaced at least. The shape of the seat resembles a dead rabbit, just squint.

Bolton North and Darwen joins together the northern suburbs from Bolton with the town of Darwen, logically enough, with a fair amount of hilly bits, moorland and twisty turny roads in between. To be fair, it’s an improvement on Rossendale and Darwen as currently exists (which the Commission seems to hate in its dismissal of our proposal). Wiser men than I will conclude what this means for the defending parties in each seat. It’s true that some already existing marginal seats will remain so – Blackpool, Chorley and South Ribble are already knife-edge without being altered too much. Significant additions of Tory territory into Lancaster and Preston will give Labour a bigger threat than usual, and in the east all three parties will face tough challenges in Burnley and Pendle.

Of course, all of this may be so much photocopier paper and highlighter pens. If there is no agreement between Coalition partners, never mind any other parties, there will be no boundary changes at all. Here’s to a whole host of “What might have been….”

masters of the map

Constitutional reform turns even the strongest man to jelly. Tony Blair was known to switch to ‘glazed eyes mode’ whenever someone mentioned a policy not related to the important stuff – like academy schools and PFI hospitals and invading Iraq without justification, that sort of thing. Mention ‘House of Lords reform’ to Blair after the 92 hereditary peers fudge and you might as well have been discussing boot polish.

For David Cameron, constitutional reform was supposed to be over and done with by last Christmas. Help defeat voting reform, stifle the Lords and cover party funding legislation with more grass than you’d find on a teenager’s windowsill. Well you don’t always get what you want, eh?

In the week we find that ‘man of the match’ is to be trademarked I wonder what we could come up with for our D-Cam. “You can’t always get what you want” seems a bit over blown, even if it is accurate. After all, I genuinely believe he wants to reduce the size of the Commons for good reason and not just partisan advantage. This is the proposal which sees Nadine Dorries’ constituency disappear, remember, it’s not as though the Conservatives come out of this without some advantage. Anything which might just open the door to the possibility of a new constituency being formed called “Valleys of Ribble and Lune” seems like a ruddy good scheme to me.

(Disclaimer, that might just have been an idea for which I’m partly responsible. At least I admitted it now, eh?)

What phrase should be look towards selling off to the highest bidder then? “We’re all in this together” seems to have lost more credibility with every passing nano-second so that’s out. “Compassionate Conservative” joins “Quiet Bat People” in the lexicon of the clinically insane. What about “be careful what you wish for”? That could be the 2015 manifesto title. “Party Chairman Grant Shapps, there, holding up the Conservative Manifesto, ‘”Be Careful What You Wish For”, it’s cover showing Nick Clegg in a car with the windows slightly ajar and the engine running, hint hint.”

Regular readers will know that I’m somewhat fond of the ongoing process of reducing the size of the Commons, as I see it without all the nanny goat bleating from the benches opposite. “Gerrrrrymandering!” they….bleat, I suppose….like so many of those people who stand outside shopping centres handing out pocket sized leaflets entitled ‘Let’s Think About Jesus;.  Only in this case it’s “Let’s Listen to Ed Balls”, for which there can be no greater punishment for committing any of sins for which Christianity has cobbled together over the years. I admit that the boundary review has turned into a pile of arseache, with Nick Clegg gambling on acting tough on the one subject matter 90% of the general population don’t care if he acts tough about or not. You see, I’m not that obsessed about equalising constituency sizes to think that it’s the first topic of conversation at the Cricketer’s Arms, no matter how many times I try to shoehorn it into whichever debate is ensuring amongst the barflies. And trust me on this, I’ve had a punch swung at me for daring to suggest that black holes might exist, it’s a tough crowd.

In his pursuit of the one constitutional reform which benefits his party the most (….well, second most, there’s still an in-built Labour bias in the system due to First Past the Post but let’s not meander along that cul-de-sac),  Cameron is in the territory marked ‘at least he tried’. No assists, no goals – he could be the Stewart Downing of politics. Now there’s a phrase I know won’t be trademarked.