Phillippa Williamson was officially installed in the top job at the Conservative-controlled authority last week – and amid continued uncertainty around the current trajectory of the pandemic, she says it is nevertheless important to look to the long-term and the opportunities that it presents for Lancashire.
In her first full interview since taking charge at County Hall, she told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that one of her top priorities is to attract investment into the county so that it can capitalise on the recovery from Covid, whenever that comes.
“This [last] year has been awful for everybody for all sorts of different reasons, but they want to get back to normal. By that, it doesn’t just mean the end of lockdown and [a return to] what we did before, but actually to be able to start focusing on the future – people want jobs…and better services.
“We are in a very good financial position as a county council. Over the last four years, we’ve put a lot of effort into getting the house in order and we need now to take advantage of that. There are lots of ways that we can help in terms of bringing inward investment into the county and facilitating jobs growth and improving the skills of people across the county.
“We’ve got some big projects under way and we can now really focus our efforts onto those, I suppose the most high-profile one is the Eden Project North – a fantastic opportunity for…the region as a whole to bring in visitors to the area and to create jobs, so we are looking to push that forward as best we can.
“[We are also] working with BAE Systems at Samlesbury Enterprise Zone [to deliver] 2000 jobs and a million and a half square metres of development land – and to make sure that’s the sort of place businesses can invest and, therefore, create prosperity for the county.
“There are lots of other [opportunities] and we will be on the lookout for even more,” said County Cllr Williamson, who represents the Lancaster Rural North division.
She was speaking shortly before it was announced that a major recruitment drive is set to begin to create a team focusing on “strategic developments” in the county.
Roles such as project managers and planners will be advertised to work on schemes including the Lancashire Central project at Cuerden, close to the end of the M65. A plot of land previously earmarked for an IKEA store is now proposed to house an industrial and logistics hub, with preparatory work currently ongoing.
On the often thorny subject of securing a devolution deal for Lancashire – which is routinely bound up with predictions about the county’s economic prospects – the new leader says she is open-minded about the more controversial aspects of that currently stalled process.
Last year, under the county council’s then leader Geoff Driver, the authority wrote to the government recommending its own abolition and that of the 14 other local authorities in Lancashire – and the creation of three new standalone councils serving central, eastern and north western parts of the county. It was part of a pitch from Lancashire to become one of the areas that would be next to enter into discussions with the government about devolution and an associated requirement to streamline the number of councils in the area.
Ultimately, Lancashire was not one of the trio of counties selected and there has since been disquiet from some district leaders about the shape of – and need for – any reorganisation. County Cllr Williamson says the biggest risk to Lancashire does not come from any delay to the devolution process – but rather that it causes the county to take its eye off the economic ball.
“What I’ve learned from the last 12 months in the pandemic is that all levels of government can work very effectively together- and have done – when they are really focussed on some key deliverables…that will make things better for the residents here.
“We should not be pushing forward with any plans [for change] unless there is full consultation on…the pros and cons – and on the pros and cons of the status quo. We need people to really understand what works well and what could work well in the future.
“I’m quite open to change, but…I don’t want us to lose momentum about what we can deliver now. I really don’t want us to be sitting around waiting to do things.
“And I’ve been overwhelmed by the goodwill of lower-tier councils and other organisations who are working across the county to engage with us – and I really want to grab that opportunity,” said County Cllr Williamson.
She added that a combined authority – another devolution requirement – could be a way of managing investment across such a large area and also that an “in-principle” decision amongst all 15 Lancashire council leaders last year to to support the creation of an elected mayor with limited powers was “there and made” if it continued to be “right for the county and everyone is supportive of it”.
Amongst the other items in her in-tray is the need for the council to find £50m in savings over the next three years. Its deficit is down from £200m four years ago, but County Cllr Williamson rejects any suggestion that the authority has gone as far as it can in saving cash – although she was not drawn on precisely where her administration might look to bridge the remaining gap.
“Our mantra is that we are business-like in the way that we go about things, so we are looking to be efficient, but always to deliver better services – and you can do that.
“We look for opportunities to invest to save, but also to match-fund where we can. A really good example is the introduction of family safeguarding, where we introduced – at a cost of well over £10m – a whole new way of working which everybody agrees is the right way to go…to support people when they most need it.
“But the funding to make that fundamental change came partly from the county council and partly from the government – based on us being able to show in a really strong business case that we could deliver a better service.”
Meanwhile, County Cllr Williamson has put her own stamp on the cabinet, bringing in several new faces – but also creating entirely new roles.
She has split her own former children and schools portfolio into one focusing on education and skills and another concerned with children and families. A new brief for the environment and climate change has also been hived off from its previous home as part of the economic development responsibility.
The county boss believes that the latter decision will help create a focus on the green agenda, but denies that there is an inherent conflict between the now separated roles.
“I think [the two cabinet members] will support and challenge one another. Effective scrutiny and…understanding the implications of our plans is actually a good thing – it enriches the end product in my view.
“We’ll have two cabinet portfolios looking at things from slightly different perspectives, but I don’t see that that’s a problem at all.”
And County Cllr Williamson is pledging that she is open to collaboration across the political divide, saying that such an approach is her “style”.
However, before the opposition groups get too carried away, she adds: “That does not mean to say by any means that we will always agree with one another.
“But I would prefer engagement with members right across the [county] council, other councils and our MPs to be as collaborative as [it] can – and let’s just all focus on doing the right thing for the people of Lancashire.”