PRIME Minister Gordon Brown has today signed an agreement that bosses claim will boost East Lancashire’s economy by £400million and improve the area’s rail links with Manchester.
The Multi Area Agreement, finalised this afternoon in Downing Street, will set improving East Lancashire’s rail links with Manchester at the top of the government’s priorities for the area.
A delegation of council leaders from across the area travelled down to the capital for the signing, and MPs Jack Straw (Blackburn) and Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) were also present.
A request by the Lancashire Telegraph to ask the Prime Minister directly how the deal would benefit East Lancashire people was rejected by his spokesman.
Blackburn with Darwen council leader Colin Rigby, who signed the document alongside the Prime Minister, said: “It was a case of ‘Hello Prime Minister, goodbye Prime Minister’ - but he’s a busy guy.”
Council bosses insist the agreement, which will see town halls across the area bidding for funding under the banner of Pennine Lancashire, will give them more clout and unlock millions of pounds in funding.
Coun Rigby added: “It’s nice to get it signed. It is very important for us to work together.”
As revealed in the Lancashire Telegraph this morning, if the government honours its pledge, vital improvements to rail lines between Clitheroe and Manchester would be carried out in return for local targets being hit.
And the Todmorden Curve would be reinstated, paving the way for direct services between Manchester and Burnley.
Key junctions of the M65 would also be widened, more than 1,000 public-sector jobs would move to the region, and multimillion pound business parks set up.
Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said the deal, one of the first in the country, would give more power to local councils in the area.
Once the planning, finance and technical hurdles have been overcome the work should be completed by 2014 at the latest, supporters say. An initial report is expected back within six months.
If the government honours its pledge, key junctions of the M65 will be widened, more than 1,000 public-sector jobs will move to the region, and multi-million pound business parks will be set up.
Broadband coverage will be extended throughout the area, and an increase in the number of people studying in higher education is planned in a move council leaders hope will reverse the area’s decline compared to other parts of the country.
But a leading local government expert told the Lancashire Telegraph it was too early to judge the Multi Area Agreement - which has been dubbed a “super council” - and some critics have warned that it could turn out to be a “damp squib”.
Supporters, however, believe the deal marks a watershed for East Lancashire.
The agreement, the product of two years’ painstaking negotiations between the six East Lancashire councils as well as County Hall, will see a new body set up to bid for funding - one of the first such models in the country - meeting in Accrington under the banner of Pennine Lancashire.
The government has promised extra funds in return for town halls signing up to the pilot - and the two rail improvements, which would cost about £8million each, are at the top of its to-do list.
Once started, the engineering work would take about three or four years to complete.
Blackburn with Darwen chief executive Graham Burgess said: “The funding itself has never really been a problem.
"The sticking point has been convincing Network Rail and the government that it’s a priority.”
In March it was revealed Network Rail bosses had rejected an outline business case for the changes, which business leaders say have hindered East Lancashire’s regeneration for years.
But it is thought the government could now make it a condition of future funding packages for Network Rail.
It is hoped the improvements will help create “commuter belts” for people travelling into Manchester, similar to parts of Cheshire.
Investment to cut unemployment is also promised as part of today’s agreement, with a focus on the key aerospace industry.
Leading local government expert Tony Travers, of London School of Economics, said it was too early to say whether the Multi Area Agreement would work for East Lancashire.
He said: “It goes without saying there are gains from local authorities working together, but it’s difficult to judge until they actually exist”.
And while he said the Conservative Party could “sweep away” New Labour’s initiatives if it won the next general election, he insisted if the agreement was solid it should not need government approval.
Blackburn with Darwen Tory council leader Colin Rigby insisted the “historic” agreement would not be merely a talking shop.
He said: “Without this, East Lancashire would die economically.
"Unemployment is up, and education is not great. It’s not been the easiest negotiation in the world, but it’s incredibly important.”
But Pendle Lib Dem district and county councillor David Whipp was not impressed.
He said: “It is a massive damp squib. They are promising they earth and will deliver dust”.
County council leader Hazel Harding, who represents Rossendale North, said: "The agreement sends the message that the councils in Pennine Lancashire are determined and united in our aim to improve people's lives and make the case for more investment."
The deal was also welcomed by Mike Damms, chief executive of East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, and Max Steinberg, whose Housing Market Renewal programme will now fall under the banner of Pennine Lancashire.
Ribble Valley council leader Michael Ranson said: “The agreement will bring together considerable knowledge, skill and expertise in tackling the area’s problems."
Why the improvements are needed
THERE is currently an hourly rail service between Man-chester, Blackburn and Clitheroe, with extra half-hourly trains during peak times.
But because of the poor infrastructure, notably the need for doubling of the track on some stretches between Blackburn and Bolton, more trains cannot be added.
The £8million improvements would also improve signalling and increase platform lengths.
Meanwhile, reinstating the Todmorden Curve link would re-establish a direct rail service between Burnley and Manchester.
Studies have shown this would mean a 38-minute journey from Manchester to Burnley, and 49 minutes to Accrington, benefiting 170,000 people.
The changes are seen as crucial because despite East Lancashire’s close proximity to Manchester, just 2.6 per cent of Burnley residents, and 3.6 per cent of people living in Blackburn, commute into the city.
A number of reports, including last year's by leading thinktank Centre for Cities, have found poor transport links, notably the infrequency of trains to Manchester, to be the main barrier to the area’s growth.
With 90,000 new jobs expected to be created in Greater Manchester in coming years, and increased congestion on the M66, tapping into the rail commuter market is vital.
Watch the government's own video about the deal by clicking Play below.