The case for a new Lancashire county-region
By Paul Salveson
Lancashire and Yorkshire both have strong identities and despite historic rivalries, we have more in common, as Jo Cox would have said, than what divides us. Yet while our Yorkshire neighbours are building up momentum for a ‘One Yorkshire’ region, Lancashire is lagging behind. On Lancashire Day 2020, this paper argues for a re-united Lancashire, with its own democratically-elected assembly, based broadly on its historic boundaries but looking to the future for a dynamic and inclusive county-region that could be at the forefront of a green industrial revolution. It isn’t about creating top-down structures but having an enabling body that can help things happen: in business, arts, education and other fields. As well as a new county-region body to replace the mish-mash of unelected regional bodies and mayors with little accountability, a re-united Lancashire also needs strong local government (that is genuinely local) working co-operatively with the communities it serves and a vibrant economy that is locally based where profits go back into the community.
Back in 1895, Bolton writer and visionary Allen Clarke said:
“I would like to see Lancashire a cluster of towns and villages, each fixed solid on its own agricultural and industrial base, doing its own spinning and weaving; with its theatre, gymnasium, schools, libraries, baths and all things necessary for body and soul. Supposing the energy, time and talent that have been given to manufacture and manufacturing inventions had been given to agriculture and agricultural inventions, would not there have been as wonderful results in food production as there have been in cotton goods production?” (Effects of the Factory System, 1895)
Utopian? Perhaps – we need our utopian visions!. But there’s an element of realism there too. He recognised that capitalism had unleashed enormously powerful productive forces, but not necessarily with the best results. What Clarke was saying over a century ago is being said by many green activists and thinkers today and was what Gandhi preached in his own time and what Leopold Kohr, Franz Schumacher and John Papworth argued. Humanity has the resources and skills to create a better world, for everyone; the consequences of not trying are worsening climate change and all that follows from it. The old cliché remains true: think globally, act locally – and regionally.
Clarke looked forward to a Lancashire that was a greener, more self-sufficient place – within a co-operative rather than a capitalist system. Now, as we struggle to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, is the time to think differently about the world we live in. This paper is about what Lancashire could look like in the next twenty years – by which I mean the ‘historic’ Lancashire, including Greater Manchester and much of Merseyside. But this is not about looking backward – it’s about creating a progressive and inclusive vision for a re-united Lancashire ‘county-region’ within a prosperous North and a Federal Britain. A Lancashire Co-operative Commonwealth.
The state of the county
The Lancashire of Allen Clarke’s day has changed in so many ways. In the towns, gone are the mills and mill chimneys with their attendant pollution and poor working conditions inside the factory walls. But we have also lost some of the civic pride and buoyancy of the great Lancashire boroughs including Clarke’s beloved Bolton. ‘Lancashire’ itself has been split and divided in what was a travesty of democracy. No wonder there is a very worrying degree of despondency and cynicism within these towns that ‘nothing can be done’ and we are powerless. It becomes easy to blame scapegoats, be they immigrants, asylum seekers, politicians or whoever.
Lancashire has yet to find a new role that can build on its past achievements, without just being a dull collection of retail parks, charity shops and sprawling suburbia, nor indeed a heritage theme park. We have many successful businesses and a thriving academic sector with great universities, some world-class, in many towns and cities; there is the potential for that to spin-off into new industries and services that are world-leaders.
Manchester has emerged as a dynamic regional centre, though many of the once-thriving towns surrounding it are in a parlous state. This has got to change and consigning towns like Bolton, Oldham, Rochdale and Bury to the role of commuter suburbs is not acceptable. Instead of the centralised ‘city-region’ we need a more decentralised and collaborative ‘county-region’.
There is a disconnect between urban and rural, with tourist ‘honeypots’ around Lancashire and areas like the Ribble Valley and Trough of Bowland besieged by traffic from towns and cities and homes for local people made unaffordable by urban dwellers buying up second homes – a process accelerated by Covid-19.
The county that was stolen
Allen Clarke’s Lancashire has been shrunk by an undemocratic diktat in the 1970s. Nobody asked the people of Bolton, Rochdale, Oldham, Wigan and other towns if they wanted to be part of ‘Greater Manchester’. We have an elected mayor but without the democratic oversight of an elected council – which at least the original Greater Manchester Council had, before it was abolished by Mrs Thatcher in 1986. Something else we weren’t asked about. Now, in 2020, some politicians are talking about further municipal vandalism with the destruction of the remaining ‘Lancashire’ county council and three ‘super’ councils replacing it and the existing districts. Talk about making a bad job even worse. In Cumbria, there is talk of creating one single unitary authority; this would mean the death of ‘local’ government.
Allen Clarke was a strong believer in municipal reform and backed The Municipal Reform League, formed in Lancashire in the early 1900s. There’s a need for something like that but on a bigger scale, addressing the huge democratic deficit in the English regions, particularly the North, as well as the loss of power by local government. We need a ‘Campaign for Northern Democracy’ that can involve Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Cumbria and the North-East as friendly allies and partners.
Samuel Compston of Rossendale, a radical Liberal of the old school, spoke of the virtue of ‘county clanship, in no narrow sense’. He was on to something and his words were carefully chosen. Regional or county pride does not pre-suppose antipathy to other regions and nations, and it needs to include everyone within the region. But it requires a democratic voice, not just one person elected every few years as ‘mayor’, nor a committee of local authority leaders whose prime loyalty is to their own council ward.
Yorkshire has been quicker off the mark and the Campaign for a Yorkshire Parliament has won wide cross-party support; the Yorkshire Party has made several local gains. The Yorkshire-based ‘Same Skies Collective’ has developed some fresh new ways of thinking about regionalism. The Yorkshire Society is succeeded in reinvigorating a strong, inclusive Yorkshire identity – a very good model for us to follow in Lancashire.
Here, there’s a ‘Friends of Real Lancashire’ and we have a Lancashire Society which currently has a low profile. Lancashire needs to play its part in the regionalist revival with a much higher profile and cross-party support. A reformed Lancashire that includes Greater Manchester and Merseyside makes sense as an economic unit but also chimes with people’s identities – in a way that artificial ‘city regions’ never will.
‘Greater Manchester’ typifies the problem of ‘city-regions’. It has reduced the once proudly-independent county boroughs to the status of satellites – commuter suburbs of Manchester (or ‘Manctopia’ as it was described in an excellent TV programme recently). Nearly 50 years on from the creation of ‘Greater Manchester’ our ‘city region’ still has precious little legitimacy and if there was a referendum tomorrow on being part of Lancashire or ‘Greater Manchester’ I have little doubt about the result.
A democratic new Lancashire
Regional democracy must be the next big jump for our political system with county assemblies, elected proportionately, taking real powers out of Westminster and Whitehall, backed up by strong well-resourced local government which has the right scale (not too big!). In England, we haven’t grasped the distinction between the national, regional and local, with cack-handed attempts to combine the regional and local (witness current attempts to create a unitary authority for all of Cumbria and three huge ‘local’ authorities covering all Lancashire). The latter are neither sufficiently ‘strategic’ to be effective regional bodies, and anything but ‘local’. Cumbria itself is big enough to be a county-region but still needs effective local government beneath it.
We need to get power out of the centre – Westminster/Whitehall – and give county-regions such as Lancashire real powers (see below) complemented by local government which really is ‘local’ and relates to historic, ‘felt’ identities which make economic and political sense.
Parameters and powers
A re-constituted Lancashire county-region should include much of what once constituted Lancashire with the additions of parts of historic Cheshire to the south (Stockport, Tameside and Trafford in Greater Manchester). In some places, e.g. Warrington, Widnes and Runcorn, local referenda on joining the appropriate county-region could be held. The historic ‘Lancashire north of the Sands’ really makes more sense within a Cumbria county-region that works closely with its Lancashire sister. This provides a county-region of significant size able to wield economic clout without being too large (which a region of ‘The North’ would be, both in population and geographical scale). Crucially, it would reflect people’s identities.
A major failure of the attempts to create regional assemblies during the Blair Government was their obvious lack of powers, prompting the successful attempts by the advocates of the centralised status quo to label them as expensive ‘white elephants’. While on one hand it makes sense for a new county-region to evolve gradually in terms of the powers and responsibilities it has, it must be able to demonstrate a clear reason to exist from the start. That means taking over responsibility for many of the areas which Wales and Scotland already have. It should include tax-raising powers.
The county-region should be empowered to support economic development across its area, investing in emerging industries, research and marketing. The ‘Lancashire Enterprises’ of the 1980s, stimulated and overseen by Lancashire County Council, would be a good model to start with. Part of its role should be to encourage new social enterprises and encourage greater employee and community involvement in large enterprises.
For transport, a ‘Transport for Lancashire’ should be created to take over the powers of existing transport authorities, as well as the ineffective Transport for the North. There should be close collaboration between sister bodies in Yorkshire, Cumbria, the North-east, and the Midlands, with formation of joint bodies to develop inter-regional links.
Another regular canard against regional government is that it creates ‘more politicians’ – ’jobs for the boys’, another effective line of attack against the idea of a North-East Assembly in 2004. It depends how you look at that. Regional devolution must include reducing the number of MPs at Westminster, as their functions transfer to the county-region. The same goes for the civil servants. Some powers that are currently devolved, but with little democratic scrutiny (transport, health, etc.) could simply come under the democratically-elected county-region, with members elected by a proportional voting system.
Localising local government
One of the most disastrous decisions of local government reform in the 70s was the destruction of small, usually highly efficient, local councils. Medium-sized towns, such as Darwen, Heywood, Farnworth, Radcliffe and others often ran their own services, built good quality housing and underpinned a very strong sense of civic pride. They were ruthlessly destroyed in the spurious cause that ‘big is better’ and the knee-jerk approach of far too many bureaucrats to centralise as much as possible. Can anyone honestly say that these medium-sized towns have benefitted from the changes imposed on them in the 70s?
Within a Lancashire ‘county-region’ local government should ultimately be based on smaller but empowered and well-resourced units that reflect people’s identities – the Darwens, Athertons, Radcliffes as well as larger towns such as Oldham, Burnley, Blackburn and Blackpool. However, in the short term use should be made of existing powers to create local councils (‘town’ or parish councils) for small and medium-sized towns that don’t have their own voice, based on the ‘Flatpack Democracy’ model developed by independent town councillors in Frome, Somerset.
These smaller but more powerful local councils should co-operate with their parent borough council and neighbouring communities on issues of mutual concern within a Lancashire county-region – a ‘co-operative commonwealth’ as argued below.
Having vibrant town as well as city centres must be a major element of the county-region. This means having a vision for town centres which offer something that the mega-stores don’t offer: a sense of conviviality and sociability. The arts have a key role to play – small galleries, larger public facilities including theatres and annual festivals (Bolton’s Film Festival is a good example) can help revive town centres and give them a new role.
Some Lancashire towns have been successful in developing niche manufacturing which offer highly skilled, well-paid jobs – but there’s a need for much more, working in partnership with the higher education sector. The ‘Preston Model’ should be rolled out to other similar-sized towns and cities to encourage much more local procurement and business support. It all needs sensitive encouragement which should come from re-structured and empowered local councils working within a collaborative framework provided by the county-region’s Lancashire Enterprises, as part of ‘The Lancashire Co-operative Commonwealth’.
A new green industrial revolution for Lancashire
Allen Clarke’s prophecy in Effects of the Factory System in (1895) that the cotton industry was doomed has finally come to be. Most of the mills that once dotted the south Lancashire landscape have been demolished. A few have survived but many are in poor condition, with only the prospect of demolition ahead of them unless something is done. The University of Bolton has had the sense to re-use some old mill buildings as part of its campus.
Yet most of the surviving Lancashire mills, perhaps with the exception of Manchester’s Ancoats, don’t have the wonderful mix of creative industries, office space and living accommodation that has been achieved with some of the mills in Yorkshire. At Saltaire, Salt’s Mill is perhaps the finest example, though rivalled by the Dean Clough Mills in Halifax. More should be done to protect our Lancashire mills and find good uses for them. Why should Yorkshire have all the fun?
Allen Clarke would have loved the idea of putting the mill buildings to better use – as places to live, but also as office and art space, recreational centres and performance areas. How about mill roof gardens? There’d be no shortage of space, with room to grow fruit and veg. Time for the ‘Incredible Edible Mill’!
We also need to build new, inspirational buildings that can take their place alongside the fine architecture bequeathed us by past generations. We need a vision, at least as radical as that of the Bolton landscape architect T.H. Mawson, of what our towns and cities should look like in the next 20 years, not what developers think is ‘good enough’ for us and makes the quickest return for them. We need some new Lord Leverhulmes (for all his faults!), women and men of vision, able to work collaboratively and creatively.
Lancashire could be at the forefront, once again, of an industrial revolution – but this time a green revolution which benefits everyone, not just a handful of entrepreneurs.
Sharing the same skies: the countryside for everyone
Alongside a vibrant urban society, economy and culture, we need to make the best of our countryside, the ‘green lungs’ that make Lancashire so special. At its best, it can compete with the Lakes and the Peak District in terms of scenic beauty and is relatively well served with vibrant shops and smaller towns. It’s a huge asset in attracting talent into the region as a place to live and work.
Yet public transport access to the countryside is nothing like as good as it ought to be. Some of the most attractive areas have little or no bus services, or they don’t operate on Sundays – just when people need them. Places like Rivington, Pendle and Holcombe – let alone the Ribble Valley and Pendle – can be clogged with cars and motor bikes at weekends. At the same time, many stations that gave walkers access to the countryside, have closed.
Never mind HS2, let’s rebuild a world-class local transport network. For a fraction of the cost of that high-speed white elephant, we could have a network of modern, zero-emission trams and buses serving town and country, feeding in to a core rail network. If we look at the examples of Germany, Switzerland and Austria their popular rural areas typically have either frequent train services or rural trams connecting from the larger urban centres.
One of the few bright spots during the coronavirus outbreak has been the remarkable growth in cycling. Clarke and his friends Johnston and Wild would be delighted. Quiet roads, good weather and time on your hands was the ideal combination. Cycle shops have enjoyed a boon. I hope this renewed interest in cycling will survive, particularly if the Government puts its money where its mouth is and provides funding to expand cycle facilities in both town and country. That will need a strong regional body to implement cycle infrastructure working with local authorities and communities – a clear role for Transport for Lancashire.
People will still use their car to get out into the countryside and that needs to be managed and provided for. Car parks can be ugly, but so can cars parked alongside verges. The more alternatives there are available, the less likely we are to assume that the only way to enjoy the countryside is by that form of transport which does most to disfigure it.
Why not copy the example of some of the national parks in the United States, which prohibit car access to the most sensitive areas? If you get there by car, leave it in a ‘parking lot’ and either walk, get on a local bus or hire a bike. It could work in some of our national parks including the Lakes and popular visitor locations such as Rivington and the Pendle Forest. The exciting plans for a ‘South Pennines’ regional park could include sensitive measures to restrict visitors’ car access and promote use of public transport, cycling and walking.
Allen Clarke want to see a new ‘agricultural revolution’ in Lancashire, and that’s still relevant. Much of Lancashire, particularly in the north of the county, has a highly productive agricultural sector and we need to guard against precious agricultural land being lost to development. We need to do much more to feed our own people and not be dependent on imported foods.
The ‘incredible edible’ model, of small-scale food production within towns was invented here in Lancashire and needs to be rolled out in every town and village.
Beyond a boundary: a Red Rose Co-operative Commonwealth?
The future of England should be about county-regions co-operating with empowered, but geographically smaller, local councils. There should be strong encouragement to co-operate on issues when it makes sense, and to share resources and specialist staff. That co-operation should extend further, across the North. Why not a ‘Northern Federation’ of county-regions – Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, the North-East and Cumbria, collaborating on issues of joint concern, such as strategic transport links and academic co-operation?
Good, democratic governance must be about addressing inequality, jobs, the environment, health, education and having a thriving and diverse cultural sector. Allen Clarke’s vision in 1895, of locally-based and socially-owned units of production make sense in a modern digital age, co-operating as equals with partners across the globe.
His idea of a ‘co-operative commonwealth’ could certainly work at a Lancashire level; after all, it’s where co-operation began. Allen Clarke, with and his radical friends Solomon Partington, the co-operator and feminist Sarah Reddish and Samuel Compston looking over his shoulder, would have said “what are you waiting for?”
And we can’t wait. The coronavirus pandemic has focused people’s minds on the dysfunctional way we have lived our lives. An even bigger threat is climate change which requires re-thinking every aspect of how we live, travel, work and play. A democratic revolution is needed to create appropriate governance that can address those issues.
That revolution needs to go beyond Lancashire and the North. We need to build a Federal Britain which is no longer dominated by London: a federation of equals.
Now is the time to create that Allen Clarke’s vision of a ‘Lancashire Co-operative Commonwealth’ that can, in the words of Clarke’s heroine, Rose Hilton – get agate with the job of “washing the smoky dust off the petals of the red rose” and create a county-region that is fit for the 21st century. A Lancashire re-united.
What we stand for
- The promotion of a strong, inclusive Lancashire identity that is welcoming to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or age
- The creation of a new Lancashire county-region which includes Greater Manchester and Merseyside
- The formation of a democratically-elected Lancashire Assembly, using a fair voting system
- The devolution of powers over transport, health, education, economic development, culture and tourism to the county-region, with democratic oversight
- The encouragement of informal Lancashire-wide networks in the areas of higher education and research, culture and the arts, sport and other areas
- The encouragement of democratic forms of social ownership – ‘a co-operative commonwealth’
- The empowerment of local government and town/parish councils
- Close and collaborative working with our neighbours in Cumbria, Yorkshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire and the formation of a Northern Confederation
Lancashire Day, November 27th 2020
See facebook group #LancashireUnited and www.lancashireloominary.co.uk