Latest Public Sector News

16.08.17

Leading in the challenging times ahead

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 17

Following the Brexit vote, Cllr Philip Atkins OBE, County Councils Network (CCN) vice-chairman and leader of Staffordshire County Council, has called on the government to empower counties to help build a more prosperous country during what will undoubtedly be a challenging period.

In a short space of weeks, the local government sector has found itself in a vastly different political and policy context than it did at the start of June. The government’s agenda clearly will be focused on delivering Brexit, with new legislation largely centred around this. However, there are a host of domestic challenges facing this government: the social care funding crisis, generating national economic growth, housebuilding, and the ever-present pressure on public services, to name a few. 

At the same time, Theresa May acknowledged last year the Brexit vote was not simply a vote to leave the EU, but to “change how the country works”. This desire for change is especially true for county areas, which saw the largest consolidated Leave vote, including my county of Staffordshire. 

Under this backdrop, the CCN is calling for a ‘new deal’ for county areas, one which empowers our areas to tackle these domestic issues head-on, and also one that gives us the resources to do so. 

This forms the basis of CCN’s new report, ‘A New Deal for Counties: Our Plan for Government’. CCN’s calls for a ‘new deal’ can be condensed into three core principles: a fair share of funding; greater recognition of the role of county economies; and new devolved powers to enable our areas to drive through reform and reshape existing services. 

Alongside these three core foundations of a new deal, the document sets out wide-ranging policy proposals across nine policy areas, from children services to adult social care, and housing and planning to education. 

First and foremost, however, is the need for sustainable and fair funding for counties. 

For too long, funding inequalities for shire counties have been tolerated. The social care funding crisis is a clear issue facing all types of upper-tier authorities, but counties are the hardest hit. LG Futures estimates that last year, counties collectively received £2bn less than other types of council in health and social care funding. 

But this imbalance does not purely exist in social care. The average county receives £292 less per person on average compared to councils in London for key services, which includes children’s social services, roads maintenance, public health and transport. 

We welcome the government’s recommitment to the ‘needs-based fair funding review’ despite business legislation being withdrawn, but it must be completed in a timely manner and fund councils based on their true need. We look forward to working with ministers to get the methodology right. 

As we look to a future outside of the EU, the health of the English economy will take on extra importance. The government will hope its industrial strategy is the blueprint for regional growth across the country, but it must take into account the importance of county economies. 

Oxford Economics’ recent study into county economies for the CCN argued that collectively, they are big enough to influence economic activity for the whole country, delivering 41% of the country’s GVA, 44% of its employment and accounting for 40% of its exports. 

The industrial strategy’s success – or otherwise – depends on exploiting this potential, but also tackling structural weaknesses within counties such as low productivity, skills mismatches and a lack of infrastructure investment. It must also lay the foundations so counties can transition to being bases of high-value employment, especially in the professional, tech and science sectors. 

Greg Clark’s recent comments on the role of local government in delivering the strategy are reassuring, but we believe there is ample evidence now to suggest county areas form a central part of the strategy alongside the cities. 

Finally, we would urge government to provide clarity on where devolution could go under this administration. 

The Conservative Party manifesto commitment to withdraw the ‘rural mayor’ requirement for devolution deals was hugely welcomed, but recent comments from Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister, that “devolution was about giving control to our cities” was deeply concerning. 

Oxford Economics’ report outlines the benefits of county devolution: if all public spending was devolved to England’s 37 counties, it could generate £11.7bn of public sector savings over a five-year period, add £26bn in GVA to the economy and create over one million jobs over 10 years. 

This would see England’s economic growth boosted from a projected 1.9% per year to 2.7% a year – a significant upgrade. With Brexit making the need for a stable yet thriving economy paramount, this cannot be ignored. Equally, drawing down powers to local communities will help quell the feeling of isolation and remoteness from the decision-makers that contributed to the Brexit vote. 

Our message to government is simple: trust us, work with us, empower us and we can help build a more prosperous country during what will undoubtedly be a challenging period.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The ‘A New Deal for Counties: Our Plan for Government’ report can be accessed at:

W: www.countycouncilsnetwork.org.uk

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