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26.08.16

Counties can help deliver the post-Brexit agenda

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 16

Cllr Paul Carter, chairman of the County Councils Network (CCN) and leader of Kent County Council, argues counties can offer the government both stability and solutions in a post-Brexit world.

The vote to leave the European Union was the clearest marker yet that Westminster is completely disconnected from ordinary people. 

As several commentators have pointed out, large swathes of the Leave vote were manifested in the feeling that Whitehall was remote and out of touch, with too many residents not feeling the benefits of a growing economy, pressure on public services increasing, and a housing market that has locked out young people. 

In the aftermath of a new government being formed, the coming period is an incredibly crucial one for counties. 

Indeed, a lot of concerns the government will have to contend with are borne out in rural areas, as evidenced by county locations making a big contribution to the Leave vote. 

EU funding assurances 

In the short term, we must safeguard European funding, as county regions were set to receive around £4.1bn worth of EU structural funds until 2020. In many places, such as Cornwall, the roll-out of this money, for important projects such as superfast broadband, is only part completed. 

We will be making the strongest case possible, with LGA colleagues, that some money the country will no longer be spending on EU membership is subsumed into the former pot of structural funds that was available to local authorities. 

But the change at No. 10, as well as a new secretary of state in Marsham Street, allows us to examine local government devolution so far. Like the Scottish Referendum before, it is hoped that a landmark vote can usher in a step change in thinking.

Flexibility needed for county devolution 

Let’s be clear: the devolution agenda must continue, especially as it can play a vital part in bridging the gap between disenfranchised communities and Westminster. 

But devolution has failed to get off the ground in several county areas, largely due to the inflexibility of what is on offer and the ‘one-size-fits-all’ metropolitan nature of deals. 

As concluded in CCN’s IPPR study last year, there is a need for alternative models to unlock county devolution. Indeed, we would hope this is now being considered by the new leadership. 

Delivering the post-Brexit agenda 

Theresa May has rightly said that her government can’t simply be a ‘Brexit’ administration. The social challenges are huge, especially over alleviating the concerns of ordinary people. 

County authorities are well placed to support the government in delivering this post-Brexit agenda. The catalyst for this will be the right devolved governance arrangements for county areas, supported by a wider policy programme that allows counties to take the lead in transforming public services. 

This is especially true in health and social care. County authorities have delivered adult social care at size and scale, maintaining services to a high standard despite having to make unprecedented efficiencies. Utilising this experience, counties are best placed to work with Health and Wellbeing Boards to lead on the transformation of services locally, integrating health and social care, and adding greater democratic influence to services.

This proactive rather than reactive approach brings services closer to the community, allowing residents to get the support they need from their homes, and avoiding expensive hospital care. In turn, this will take the pressure off primary healthcare and doctors, improving access to both. 

In the coming period, the economy will be a key concern for the government. Counties can offer both stability and solutions here, especially on unlocking housebuilding – a key pledge for Sajid Javid. 

On wider reforms, the new government should move away from its centrist academisation programme. Instead, it should look at how it can work with local government in education to improve outcomes for all our young people, not the just most academically able who go on to higher education. 

CCN members are the best performing local authority type for school places. With the pressure on school places well documented, how logical would it be to remove local authorities from this important function? And proposed reforms to dilute local authorities’ roles in delivering children’s services should be carefully considered, with county authorities displaying strong evidence of success and collaboration between themselves and blue light services. 

CCN’s new campaign, Your County Matters, aims to illustrate what counties can do. As a county MP, Javid will be aware of county authorities’ potential. But in order to unlock that, counties need the right devolved powers. In return, we can offer the government stability and solutions.

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

 

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