THE leaders of all 15 councils in Lancashire have backed 'the principle' of creating a new combined authority in the county.

It is the first time that unanimity has been achieved on the divisive issue since they began discussing the idea four years ago.

Lancashire County Council's Conservative leader Geoff Driver told a meeting of his own authority’s cabinet that he and his counterparts reached the agreement last week.

However this tacit approval is still subject to the consent of each individual council and set to become embroiled in fractious discussions about the reorganisation of Lancashire’s complex local government map.

Blackburn with Darwen Borough's Labour leader Cllr Mohammed Khan said he supported a 'strategic' combined authority, possible with an elected Mayor, with a single Pennine Lancashire council below it to deliver day to day services such as bin collection and libraries.

Cllr Mark Townsend, leader of Burnley Council's Labour opposition group, warned of a 'Preston takeover' and said his authority was in danger of 'sleepwalking to oblivion'.

The prospect of such a combined authority – which could hand Lancashire greater powers over transport, skills and strategic planning, along with extra funding of at least £30m per year for 30 years – has proved elusive.

While neighbouring areas in Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region signed up several years ago, Lancashire got bogged down in internal debate about whether it wanted an elected mayor – a post usually required as part of a combined authority.

The county council cabinet has now voted to back the principle of a combined authority and the elected mayor to go with it.

County Cllr Driver said that he did not think that the county would be given 'much choice' about whether to rethink its local authority set-up'

He said:“The messages that we’re getting are that the government is seeing a combined authority and a local government review as going hand in glove, because they see the need to simplify the local government structure."

Labour opposition group leader County Cllr Azhar Ali said that he backed both the principle of an elected mayor and some council reorganisation to avoid the risk of multiple tiers of local government 'frustrating decision-making'.

He said:“It’s now time for this council to be leading the way – we’ve got to stop dithering as we have been for the last couple of years."

Cllr Khan said: "We are all for a strategic combined authority responsible for major tasks such as economic development, transport and education and skills policy.

"But we need to simplify local government structure with possible three unitary authorities below it.

"We support a Pennine Lancashire responsible for day to day things like bin collection and libraries made up of Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn, Burnley, Pendle, Rossendale and possibly Ribble Valley."

County Cllr Driver dismissed the charge of dithering and said that districts from both sides of the political divide had held up the process – adding that he was encouraging Tory district leaders to overcome the 'significant provisos' in the agreement Lancashire’s leaders reached this week.

Cllr Townsend said: "This has opened the door for the government to impose local government change on Councils like Burnley putting them in danger of disappearing with no say on the matter.

"The Tory Government is using the Combined Authority as a Trojan Horse for a redrawing of the Lancashire Local Government map."

Nelson East's County Cllr Ali said after the meeting: "Lancashire should be leading the way. A combined authority would give us strength in unity to build a better future for all."

He said it could win government investment in projects such as reopening he Colne/Skipton rail link; the electrification of the East Lancashire line to Preston; a new A56 villages bypass linking the M65 to the M1; and a new Rawtenstall to Manchester train link.