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26.12.16

Autumn Statement highlights growth opportunities for counties

Source: PSE Dec/Jan 17

Philip Atkins, vice-chairman of the County Councils Network (CCN) and leader of Staffordshire County Council, reflects on the challenges and opportunities presented by the chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

While it’s fair to say the initial reaction to the Autumn Statement from local government was less than positive, the chancellor framing his set-piece around infrastructure and productivity is important for county areas. 

Crucially, there was a notable shift displayed from the new government in aiming to ensure all of the country – not just the cities – benefit from regional growth investment and incentives.

 The CCN has long argued for a more inclusive economic policy, and in its Autumn Statement submission called for investment into housing, infrastructure, and transport – so an approach that heeded all three will be welcomed by county areas. 

It’s clear that not only do counties have huge economic potential, but they are already the biggest contributor to the national economy: CCN member councils account for 41% of England’s GVA. 

Locally, county authorities are responsible for 90% of service expenditure in two-tier areas, delivering some of the highest performing services in local government, at size and scale. 

Our member councils have driven sub-county transport bodies, with a cross-border strategic approach. The chancellor said he consciously made few specific announcements in his statement, but counties’ hard work was referenced in two of the projects he mentioned: financial backing for East West Rail and the ‘Oxbridge’ expressway, spearheaded by the Economic Heartland. 

But equally, CCN members face their own unique challenges. Many counties have below average productivity and infrastructure gaps amounting to billions. With the previous government’s focus on empowering the big cities, there is a feeling of disenfranchisement in rural areas.

With the UK’s productivity stagnating, the chancellor has placed a big emphasis on driving productivity levels up through “high value” investment. CCN will argue that resource needs to be directed towards county areas, ensuring they are on par with the country’s major cities. And when helping shape the government’s industrial strategy, CCN will be making the case for investment into county areas stressing the return that investment will give to UK Plc. 

Only by fairly focusing resource and investment to all four corners of the country will the government create an economy that works for everyone. 

This very same principle applies to the Local Growth Fund allocations. The indicative announcements caused plenty of concern for our member councils; but following CCN advocacy, it would appear that there has been some improvement to funds for county Local Enterprise Partnerships. While we await final details, we will continue to argue that this money is crucial in unlocking county growth, and for the government to consider the potential our areas have in contributing to the national economy and previous track record of delivery. 

Disappointingly, the chancellor also announced that directly-elected mayors would have extra borrowing powers, which is at odds with the concept of an all-inclusive economic policy. Theresa May said she wanted an economy firing on all cylinders, so therefore these growth powers should not be restricted to small pockets of the country who have chosen to have a specific governance model. 

CCN’s submission to the Treasury highlighted a need to invest in county roads, and the announcement of £1.1bn to address congestion and improve road networks was welcome, as is further planned resource for the National Infrastructure Commission. CCN will make the case for a fair allocation of this resource, which recognises the size of county geographies, our large populations, and the need to invest in county roads to boost growth but to also improve the lives our residents and areas of sparsity. 

Finally, considering housing is a clear priority for this government, it got a prominent showing in the chancellor’s statement. Counties have the least affordable housing outside of London, so it was welcome to see Philip Hammond acknowledging the challenges and issues of delivering new homes and the impact unaffordable housing has on productivity. 

He rightly put a focus on infrastructure as key to unlocking housebuilding, saying that typical objections to new development focus on the impact it could have on local infrastructure. This is true, and CCN has long argued for planning to be put on the strategic level, aligning both planning and infrastructure. 

We are engaging with government on its forthcoming housing white paper, undertaking new analysis to explore a practical and effective way forward for strategic planning, infrastructure investment and housing delivery to boost the delivery of timely and affordable homes for county residents. 

Clearly, the chancellor’s speech didn’t contain all good news. The absence of any social care funding was concerning, and counties, along with the rest of the sector, must continue to advocate ways of addressing the current and future pressures in elderly care. But looking beyond local government finance, there is a lot counties can engage with in this Autumn Statement, particularly on growth.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

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