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We need to ask the West Lancashire Question Starmer is silent on Northern issues

Burscough, in the middle of nowhere, should be governed from Liverpool. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Burscough, in the middle of nowhere, should be governed from Liverpool. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


February 6, 2023   4 mins

West Lancashire has always been defined by its relationship with other places. The rural constituency, which elects a new MP this week, covers the geographical area west of Wigan, north of St Helens, east of Southport, north-east of Liverpool and south of Preston. That’s five large urban conurbations, each with its own problems, which are quite different from those of West Lancashire, but which nevertheless exert a strong pull.

West Lancashire’s largest town, meanwhile, has a population of just under 40,000. Skelmersdale — or “Skem”  — was one of the very first New Towns, built in the Sixties to accommodate families from some of Liverpool’s worst slum housing. They were plonked down in the middle of a rural, mostly Tory-voting wilderness; the railway line to the city had closed to passengers in 1956, so these new arrivals were completely cut off from relatives and friends. This isolation was probably the main reason why “Skem” never flourished. But it nevertheless changed the fate of the surrounding area.

In West Lancashire the Tory tradition remained strong. But Skem’s growing size meant that the district council of West Lancashire had a strong Labour representation. Meanwhile local Toryism, once a powerful force, has fragmented. When the constituency of West Lancashire was formed in 1983, it elected a Conservative MP, Ken Hind, but it has had a Labour MP since 1992, as the “red” political influence of Liverpool spread well beyond Skelmersdale. Middle-class Liverpudlians have steadily relocated to the old market towns of Ormskirk and Burscough while continuing to commute into the city. Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, has boosted the economy of the area, as well as making the population more cosmopolitan, with a more Liverpool-centred attitude.

All of this begs what we might call the West Lancashire Question. While Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian Question related to dilemmas facing Scotland as part of a devolved UK, the West Lancashire Question might consider the fate of English regions in an increasingly muddled local government jigsaw. The constituency may be about to decide who it wants to send to Westminster, but how does it want to rule itself?

Today’s local government structures completely fail to represent the reality of the area and its hinterland. At the moment, the local authority is West Lancashire Borough Council, which operates as part of Lancashire County Council. And yet the politics and economics of the area are shaped by Liverpool: surely, then, it should be part of the Liverpool City Region?

LCR represents around 1.5 million people, comprising the councils of Liverpool, Sefton, Knowsley, St Helens, Halton and Wirral. It has its own elected mayor, Steve Rotheram, and, with a remit that covers transport, housing and economic development, it has more power than not only West Lancashire Borough but the entirety of Lancashire County Council can dream of.

Although West Lancashire increasingly looks, feels and even sounds like the Liverpool City Region — listen to the accents in Ormskirk pubs and cafes — it is stuck within Tory-led Lancashire County Council, which has very limited resources. The county council does collaborate with Labour in Liverpool City Region and West Lancashire Borough: close work between them yielded what seemed an attractive bid to bring trains back to Skelmersdale with a direct link to Liverpool. But this was turned down by central Government, suggesting that cheaper options should be explored. The bid was backed by Rosie Cooper, who described the decision as a “betrayal”.

If, however, this project had been proposed across the water in Wales, which has devolved powers over transport, the decision would have been different. As it was, Whitehall scuppered a project which would have brought major benefits to a town strongly in need of “levelling-up”. And the Westminster representative could do nothing about it. The region needs its own powers.

There is no simple solution, though the most obvious would be to make the constituency part of Merseyside. But some in West Lancashire, particularly those living to the north of the constituency, would argue that the link to Preston is just as important as the link to Liverpool. The irony of the current “combined authority” arrangements is that they are too restrictive: the old “historic” Lancashire included all of Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and beyond. It was a mighty region, dismantled by Government edict in 1974. The effect has been to weaken and divide what was a powerful province through its own democratic structures.

Part of the problem is one of democratic accountability. For all its faults and limitations, Lancashire County Council is a democratically elected body with county councillors representing local wards. The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, apart from the mayor, is indirectly-elected. It doesn’t make for good governance and makes the combined authorities difficult to influence. The London model, where the Greater London Authority provides oversight for the mayor, would be an improvement: like the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is elected through a proportional system.

It’s too late to restore pre-1974 Lancashire. Rather, we should imagine a much-enlarged Lancashire, which can include the combined authorities of Liverpool and Greater Manchester. Perhaps we could even start to seriously consider John Prescott’s idea of a “North-West” regional government with the resources and powers to create the sort of vibrant regional economies that the German LĂ€nder have supported. Most other European countries have strong regional governments, which are able to raise their own taxes and make decisions independently of the state. Here in England, even relatively small projects have to get approval from Westminster; all too often, they get rejected. Why not give Lancashire — which has almost as many residents as Northern Ireland — the same democratic government, and powers, that Scotland and Wales have?

Labour should be hammering away on this. Not many miles away, in Oldham, the highly-respected Coliseum Theatre is closing because every penny of its funding from Arts Council England has been cut. Keir Starmer has been silent on this and other local disappointments. Is it because he doesn’t want to be seen to be too “Northern”?

Labour is likely to win this by-election. But it is not doing enough for West Lancashire. If it had any idea what was good for the region, the party would empower it, by supporting the creation of a Greater Lancashire authority. And not make it go to Whitehall with a begging bowl which is all too often thrown back in their face.


Paul Salveson is a visiting professor at the Universities of Bolton and Huddersfield. His latest book, Lancastrians, will be published by Hurst this summer.


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Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

“What do we want?”

“Local government reorganisation!”

“When do we want it?”

“In due course, after an appropriate period of consultation”.

The problems of post-modern post-industrial towns and rural communities (or anywhere) can’t be solved by shuffling deckchairs between council chambers. Addressing the collapse of structure, meaning and purpose in community, family and individual lives is what’s needed. But that’s really, really hard to do and it will be a long, thankless slog over many, many years.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

“What do we want?”

“Local government reorganisation!”

“When do we want it?”

“In due course, after an appropriate period of consultation”.

The problems of post-modern post-industrial towns and rural communities (or anywhere) can’t be solved by shuffling deckchairs between council chambers. Addressing the collapse of structure, meaning and purpose in community, family and individual lives is what’s needed. But that’s really, really hard to do and it will be a long, thankless slog over many, many years.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Horsman
John Dellingby
John Dellingby
1 year ago

I do think some form of federalism in the UK, especially in England is inevitable. All too often Central either just throws money at random, useless projects that put a wig on a pig, or refuse to find something that might actually help an area, such as the rail to Liverpool the author mentioned.

If we are going to go down the federalist route in England, let’s ditch the silly regions that Labour and the EU foisted on us and go back to our roots. Let us bring back Wessex (excluding London), Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and give some historic identity and value to these regions.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

It’s too late to restore pre-1974 Lancashire.

It is never too late!
Bring back the old counties of England!

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I have relatives who live in Berkshire and have nver forgiven the government for taking the White Horse from them and giving it for Oxfordshire. They also gave a Berkshire Hundred to Oxfordshire; hollowing out people’s history.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

People rightly decry the habit of British colonial officials to “draw straight lines on a map” and bisect traditional clan territories when designing imperial borders. But the direct descendants of those civil servants did exactly the same thing to their own people by arbitrarily splitting up the counties.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

People rightly decry the habit of British colonial officials to “draw straight lines on a map” and bisect traditional clan territories when designing imperial borders. But the direct descendants of those civil servants did exactly the same thing to their own people by arbitrarily splitting up the counties.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

As much as I despise irridentism it’s always been my lifelong dream to see Lancashire restored to its ‘rightful’ size

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

I have relatives who live in Berkshire and have nver forgiven the government for taking the White Horse from them and giving it for Oxfordshire. They also gave a Berkshire Hundred to Oxfordshire; hollowing out people’s history.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

As much as I despise irridentism it’s always been my lifelong dream to see Lancashire restored to its ‘rightful’ size

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Let us bring back Wessex (excluding London), Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and give some historic identity and value to these regions.
As an unreconstructed Wessex girl I’ve been putting this idea forward for sometime now, but to little avail; unfortunately many people have never even heard of these old kingdoms.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Why not the full Heptarchy?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

I think Kent, Sussex and Essex would be a bit on the small size for governing areas. Essex could be incorporated in East Anglia, and Sussex and Kent into Wessex (as they ended up any way).

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

I think Kent, Sussex and Essex would be a bit on the small size for governing areas. Essex could be incorporated in East Anglia, and Sussex and Kent into Wessex (as they ended up any way).

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Why not the full Heptarchy?

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

It’s too late to restore pre-1974 Lancashire.

It is never too late!
Bring back the old counties of England!

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Let us bring back Wessex (excluding London), Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and give some historic identity and value to these regions.
As an unreconstructed Wessex girl I’ve been putting this idea forward for sometime now, but to little avail; unfortunately many people have never even heard of these old kingdoms.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
1 year ago

I do think some form of federalism in the UK, especially in England is inevitable. All too often Central either just throws money at random, useless projects that put a wig on a pig, or refuse to find something that might actually help an area, such as the rail to Liverpool the author mentioned.

If we are going to go down the federalist route in England, let’s ditch the silly regions that Labour and the EU foisted on us and go back to our roots. Let us bring back Wessex (excluding London), Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and give some historic identity and value to these regions.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

A great deal of detail about an area which is close to me. I read through it and found it hard going, despite knowing all of the places fairly well. This is what happens when you get population movements. A lot of people relocated to Skem would have seen themselves as Liverpudlians, wanting to have the character of Liverpudlians but not the poverty of opportunity.

Stockport also seems to me to have no soul. It was once a proud town but has now been absorbed into the sprawl of Greater Manchester. This is surely unavoidable as the population grows, with people coming in from all directions.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

A great deal of detail about an area which is close to me. I read through it and found it hard going, despite knowing all of the places fairly well. This is what happens when you get population movements. A lot of people relocated to Skem would have seen themselves as Liverpudlians, wanting to have the character of Liverpudlians but not the poverty of opportunity.

Stockport also seems to me to have no soul. It was once a proud town but has now been absorbed into the sprawl of Greater Manchester. This is surely unavoidable as the population grows, with people coming in from all directions.

David Forrester
David Forrester
1 year ago

A more immediate question related to this.
Why has the MP for St Helens North had the whip removed and has the Labour party not spoken about it ?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Standard procedure in the Labour Party. When a complaint is made, the MP has the whip suspended while the complaint is investigated. Do you know different or do you just believe the maxim ‘guilty until proven innocent’?

David Forrester
David Forrester
1 year ago

I believe he is my local MP and I would like to know the reasoning for his suspension. Any other comment you wish to make ?

David Forrester
David Forrester
1 year ago

I believe he is my local MP and I would like to know the reasoning for his suspension. Any other comment you wish to make ?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Standard procedure in the Labour Party. When a complaint is made, the MP has the whip suspended while the complaint is investigated. Do you know different or do you just believe the maxim ‘guilty until proven innocent’?

David Forrester
David Forrester
1 year ago

A more immediate question related to this.
Why has the MP for St Helens North had the whip removed and has the Labour party not spoken about it ?

Nigel Wallbridge
Nigel Wallbridge
1 year ago

Representative systems, whether local or centralized in London, have lost the confidence of the citizens. Time, surely, to add a very large slice of direct democracy to the mix.

Nigel Wallbridge
Nigel Wallbridge
1 year ago

Representative systems, whether local or centralized in London, have lost the confidence of the citizens. Time, surely, to add a very large slice of direct democracy to the mix.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

I don’t think any hopes of top down reorganisation are likely to bear fruit, it would upset too many vested interests.
People in western Oregon counties are campaigning to join a ‘greater’ Idaho as they are a mostly conservative rural population tacked on to a mostly liberal west coast. Perhaps people in certain parts of Lancashire should campaign to become part of a ‘greater’ Yorkshire?

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Oops.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

That would be unthinkable! It was perhaps intended as “tongue in cheek” (as we say) but the post-industrial towns and cities of Yorkshire have, in any case, similar problems of their own.

Many Lancastrians (i’m one myself) still see ourselves as part of that ancient county, regardless of the 1974 reorganisation.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Also a Lancastrian, and despite that happening before my time, I think the same.
I find it a bit odd watching Lancashire at Old Trafford thinking it’s not even Lancashire any more.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Me too Andrew and I was born in 1974. Bring back the old borders.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Me too Andrew and I was born in 1974. Bring back the old borders.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Also a Lancastrian, and despite that happening before my time, I think the same.
I find it a bit odd watching Lancashire at Old Trafford thinking it’s not even Lancashire any more.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

About as likely as Rebs and Yankees coming together. It did give me a good laugh though. Cheers.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Oops.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

That would be unthinkable! It was perhaps intended as “tongue in cheek” (as we say) but the post-industrial towns and cities of Yorkshire have, in any case, similar problems of their own.

Many Lancastrians (i’m one myself) still see ourselves as part of that ancient county, regardless of the 1974 reorganisation.

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

About as likely as Rebs and Yankees coming together. It did give me a good laugh though. Cheers.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

I don’t think any hopes of top down reorganisation are likely to bear fruit, it would upset too many vested interests.
People in western Oregon counties are campaigning to join a ‘greater’ Idaho as they are a mostly conservative rural population tacked on to a mostly liberal west coast. Perhaps people in certain parts of Lancashire should campaign to become part of a ‘greater’ Yorkshire?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

This is a remarkably unconvincing and confused argument. Firstly as other commentators have pointed out, we have already had years of local government reorganisation. Recreating Lancashire Council which has a significant population and as a historic county might count on historic local support and loyalty might well be a good idea. However this would immediately run into conflict with the ambitions of Liverpool and Manchester city councils. This option is anyway for some reason not very clear reason (it is too late?).apparently ruled out by the author.

Secondly, you can’t just cut and paste the political and administrative arrangements from a country such as Germany. That country does indeed have a much more deeply routed regional system, and a number of successful regional cities rather than a single dominant central capital. But this because these were largely derived from previous long established kingdoms and principalities and their capital cities. In other countries, regional government isn’t so obviously beneficial and in France the regions only set up in the 1960s have already been subject to a wholesale reorganisation.

Lastly, there are the somewhat dubious ideas that what we most need is further tiers of party politicians, and that resources can somehow be magicked into being at the regional level when this is not possible at the national.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

This is a remarkably unconvincing and confused argument. Firstly as other commentators have pointed out, we have already had years of local government reorganisation. Recreating Lancashire Council which has a significant population and as a historic county might count on historic local support and loyalty might well be a good idea. However this would immediately run into conflict with the ambitions of Liverpool and Manchester city councils. This option is anyway for some reason not very clear reason (it is too late?).apparently ruled out by the author.

Secondly, you can’t just cut and paste the political and administrative arrangements from a country such as Germany. That country does indeed have a much more deeply routed regional system, and a number of successful regional cities rather than a single dominant central capital. But this because these were largely derived from previous long established kingdoms and principalities and their capital cities. In other countries, regional government isn’t so obviously beneficial and in France the regions only set up in the 1960s have already been subject to a wholesale reorganisation.

Lastly, there are the somewhat dubious ideas that what we most need is further tiers of party politicians, and that resources can somehow be magicked into being at the regional level when this is not possible at the national.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher