New council puts down anchors in communities

The Westmorland and Furness Council flag flying from a flagpole on a balcony at Barrow Town Hall

A new council has committed to ‘anchoring’ its position in all the communities it serves when it comes into operation next year.

The Cabinet of the Shadow Authority for Westmorland and Furness Council today (Monday, 12 September 2022) agreed to a distributed headquarters arrangement, with anchor buildings in all the key service centres of Barrow, Kendal and Penrith.

The decision means there will be no single HQ for the new council when it comes in to operation in April 2023.

A report to today’s meeting recommended the anchor buildings as Voreda House in Penrith, South Lakeland House with the Town Hall and County Hall in Kendal and the Town Hall in Barrow.

Covering an area larger than Greater London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands combined, Westmorland and Furness Council will be England’s third largest unitary authority by area when it comes into effect in 2023. It will provide services to approximately 225,000 residents.

The Cabinet report explained that the large, mainly rural, area covered by the new authority, with challenges of transport connectivity, meant Westmorland and Furness Council would need a ‘decentralised approach to governance’ to enable it to be close to geographically dispersed communities and to ensure that services are accessible to all residents, even in the remotest parts of the new council’s area.

The report continued: “It is proposed for Westmorland and Furness that the functions of a HQ will likely be distributed across the authority, adopting a service centre model that supports the residents and communities it serves and anchors the authority within its wider communities. ‘Anchor’ buildings will be expected to serve as service hubs distributed across the unitary authority administrative area.’’

This means the HQ will not be a single focal point or building. It will be a series of connected key buildings for the council across the footprint of the authority.

The report notes that there is a legal requirement to have a single registered office for the new council, for the purpose of receiving official documentation, including legal orders, notices and correspondence, but that this did not denote a ‘hierarchy’ between the buildings and that all anchor buildings would have equal status. It was recommended and approved that the recently refurbished South Lakeland House and Kendal Town Hall were suited to the purpose of registered office.

Westmorland and Furness Council Portfolio holder for Highways and Assets, Councillor Peter Thornton, said: “We need to make some important decisions about the way forward and how this council will run and operate.

“Five years ago, any business which owned an estate such as ours would probably propose wholesale rationalisation and build a new headquarters into which everything would be concentrated.

“But we have responsibilities to our communities and our towns.

“Covid has changed our world and the revolution in IT and remote working means that we no longer need to think about concentrating our business in one building and one centre.

“The manifesto on which this administration was elected said that we would keep local government centres in Kendal, Barrow and Penrith and today’s decision fulfils that.’’

Westmorland and Furness Council will act in ‘shadow’ form for the next 10 months, as its councillors engage in the planning and preparation for Vesting Day on 1 April 2023.

1 April 2023 is the point where Westmorland and Furness Council and its councillors will officially take over responsibility for all services across the Barrow, Eden and South Lakeland areas and the existing Barrow Borough, Eden District and South Lakeland District councils, along with Cumbria County Council, will be dissolved.

Until April 2023 all current services will continue to be delivered by the existing councils, overseen by the councillors on those councils.

In the meantime, councillors on the Shadow Authority for Westmorland and Furness Council will be working with the Local Government Reorganisation programme planning for the new council to ‘go live’ in 2023.