Cllr Peter Britcliffe will take on the ceremonial role for the next year
The new chairman of Lancashire County Council says that he wants to use his year in office to promote Lancashire and the people who make it what it is.
County Cllr Peter Britcliffe, who represents the Oswaldtwistle division on the authority, was speaking after he was officially installed to the post at a meeting of the full council. The ceremonial role is akin to that of mayor at a district level.
“It’s almost like being the mayor of Lancashire,” the 72-year-old veteran Conservative politician laughs.
“The borough mayors are there to promote their areas and what goes on there – and I’m hoping to do the same for the county. Lancashire is so varied – [the] east and west are so different and I’m looking forward to experiencing ways of life from one side of the county to the other
“It’s a wonderful place – I wouldn’t have liked to have been born anywhere else,” he said
As part of his work over the next 12 months, County Cllr Britcliffe says he wants to focus particularly on giving a platform – and much-deserved praise – to Lancashire’s army of volunteers.
“One of the first duties I have is the reception at County Hall to meet with people who got the Queen’s award for volunteering. I think it’s so important that we [at the county council] and the population of Lancashire recognise the very important role that the voluntary sector plays in making sure that we have that community feel to our lives.”
Half a lifetime in local government began for County Cllr Britcliffe back in 1984 when he was first elected to Hyndburn Borough Council, on which he still sits. He was also the authority’s leader between 1999 and 2011. After an initial four-year spell at County Hall from 1989, he returned to the authority 20 years later and has remained ever since.
He also twice made a bid for the bright lights of Westminster, standing as the Tory candidate for the Hyndburn seat in both 1997 and 2001.
“With my luck in politics, I stood in the Blair years,” he reflects, without displaying any sense of real regret.
Such feelings may have been tempered by the fact that, at the last general election, his daughter, Sara, snatched the seat that had eluded him two decades earlier. The very proud father says that her interest in politics may well have stemmed from his involvement in it during her formative years. Childcare necessities meant that Sara often accompanied her dad to the many meetings he attended when she was growing up.
“She loved them,” he remembers.
After 25 years as a primary school teacher – the final 10 of which were spent teaching children with special educational needs – County Cllr Britcliffe is a firm believer in the important role of local councils and a staunch defender of the increasingly rare two-tier system which operates in much of Lancashire, under which responsibilities are split between the county and 12 different district authorities.
He recalls a time before the controversial reorganisation of local government in 1974 when even this arrangement was deemed not to be local enough by some in his hometown
“I can remember when Oswaldtwistle was an urban district council and one of the councillors there threatened to sandbank the streets [when it was proposed to abolish the authority].”
While he may joke about being the mayor of Lancashire for the next 12 months, he stresses that he would prefer to see such a role restricted to one of pomp rather than power.
“I’m not keen on the idea of elected mayors – I think it’s just taking democracy further away from the people. At least when we’ve got local councillors on district councils, they know the area they represent and are able to communicate more regularly with council officers – and have the ability to get things done.”
While Lancashire’s latest push for devolution is based on a proposal devoid both of an elected mayor and any redrawing of the council map – which were features of previous failed attempts – it nevertheless requires the county to calve out a distinct identity for itself with government ministers and mandarins; and that is a collective endeavour in which County Cllr Britcliffe is more than happy to play his part.
He expects “one of the hardest tasks” of his term will be the responsibility he acquires for keeping order at council meetings at County Hall – although he does have previous experience of chairing committees, including the county council’s health scrutiny committee between 2017 and 2021, which he admits was occasionally a rambunctious affair.
“[Full council] can get a little bit rough at times. Hopefully, I will chair it with a sense of humour, which I think always helps.”
Maybe, during the course of his ceremonial duties, he might even discover exactly why he and other residents in parts of Oswaldtwistle are known by the nickname “Gobbiners”.
“People who live above the original Gobbin lamp, which is situated outside the library these days, are classed as Gobbiners,” County Cllr Britcliffe explains, before confessing that he is unaware of the origins of the phrase
“I haven’t a blooming clue,” he laughs.
“There might be some deep meaning behind it.”
The outgoing chair of the county council said that all of Lancashire’s borough mayors had had “a story to tell” about their areas as he toured the region over the last 12 months.
In a year which saw the duties of the office-holder return to something resembling normality as Covid restrictions were lifted, County Cllr Barrie Yates said that he had enjoyed visiting schools, places of worship and pioneers of industry. However, the South Ribble East member added that his highlights had been two events he had staged for two special groups of people.
“One [was] for care workers, because I thought that was really something as a county council we should do. And we also hosted one for pensioners to welcome them back out, because they have been locked in for two years,” County Cllr Yates told the final council meeting of his tenure.
He also thanked members from across the political divide for “putting up with me”.
Meanwhile, councillors also voted in a new vice-chair for the year ahead. Former deputy council leader and highways cabinet member Keith Iddon has taken up the role, which the Chorley Rural West member said he was “really looking forward” to fulfilling. He was second-in-command to former county leader Geoff Driver between 2019 and May last year and has been a member of the authority since 2017. County Cllr Iddon also sits on Chorley Council.