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15.12.15

‘We must allow counties and cities to evolve together’

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 16

Cllr Martin Hill, leader of Lincolnshire County Council and the devolution spokesman for the County Councils Network, explains why the challenging Spending Review and upcoming local government settlement make devolution even more important.

County devolution will be imperative if we are to achieve the goal of a ‘devolution revolution’ which sees public service reform, increased productivity and growth. 

Counties serve almost half of the population and 86% of the country’s landmass, and make the biggest contribution to the national economy and Treasury. 

However, there must be greater recognition that counties have their own unique geographies, demographics, challenges and opportunities; they need tailored governance solutions which differ from a city-centric model if they are to reap the opportunities of truly transformative devolution. 

These thoughts are echoed in an independent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) – ‘Empowering Counties: unlocking county devolution deals’ – launched at the recent CCN Annual Conference. 

Flexible approach 

The report concluded that government must look beyond the big cities and not apply a one-size-fits-all approach, but instead adopt a flexible approach to governance by offering bespoke models best designed to meet the needs of communities and businesses in an area. 

IPPR worked closely with several CCN members and emphasised the rigorous and innovative bespoke governance arrangements being developed between county partners, including county councils, unitaries, districts, health partners and LEPs. 

Their report suggests government is applying unwritten rules relating to the need for a metro-mayor in return for substantial devolution and rules around the geographies matching the existing LEP boundaries. There was certainly some sympathy for their analysis at the CCN conference, with one county representative likening the devolution conversation between government and counties to ‘a game of Battleships’. 

Almost all of the city-regions have now been offered devolution deals and the chancellor reiterated his commitment to city devolution with metro-mayors in the Spending Review. 

Since the devolution deal submission ‘deadline’ on 4 September, there has been increasing frustration among county colleagues, who have spent vast amounts of time and effort to secure valuable deals – only to be rewarded with a series of provisos when it comes down to sign-off from the government. 

Avoiding a two-speed response 

In CCN’s official response to the IPPR report, we highlighted the need to guard against a two-speed process, which could risk creating a fragmented and complex local government and public sector map – we must allow counties and cities to evolve together. 

The importance of unlocking the huge potential county devolution offers is backed by CCN calculations, which show that about £100bn could be added to the national economy if counties were given the powers and freedoms to increase the productivity of their lowest performing areas. 

Devolution will also help counties, who have the largest ageing populations, overcome acute pressures in their health and social care systems. Furthermore, counties have the most complex local government and public sector landscapes, which devolution could address by promoting integration and a one place, one budget approach. 

The IPPR report highlighted the great progress counties and districts working together have made under the devolution agenda, with the shared goals of improving services for their shared communities and businesses. This must be consolidated by devolving powers with appropriate, tailored governance if county devolution is to capitalise on this momentum. 

Fighting our corner is the secretary of state for communities and local government, Greg Clark MP, who spoke at the recent CCN Annual Conference. He was met with a warm welcome as he reiterated his commitment to county devolution. 

We are awaiting the imminent assent of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and the start of secondary legislation to allow the Greater Manchester deal to be implemented. Now is the time for the secretary of state to redouble his efforts, with the support of CCN, to find a sensible and effective way forward for appropriate county governance, and gain some real ground in progressing county devolution deals. 

To aid this, I will be chairing a County Devolution Board, made up of a cross-party group of council leaders and cabinet members representing different parts of the country. We will be meeting with ministers in the first instance to discuss the timely progression of transformative county devolution deals.

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