Devon

Govt urged to show ‘highest level of ambition’ for county devolution

The County Councils Network (CCN) has urged the government to show the ‘highest level of ambition’ for devolution and levelling up in county and rural areas, as well as for ‘no let-up’ once the first tranche of deals are agreed.

It expected that a small number of devolution deals could be announced alongside the Levelling Up White Paper, which is due to be released later this year.

Today at the CCN Annual Conference 2021, the organisation’s Chairman, Councillor Tim Oliver said that the government must not stop there and go further once the first deals are agreed.

Councillor Oliver said it is imperative that more deals are agreed in the next 12 months, with substantive powers and funding made available directly to county local authorities.

He warned that failure to do so could risk leaving large parts of the country behind in the levelling up agenda.

Councillor Oliver’s speech came ahead of the launch of a new report County Deals: options for Governance, Powers and Funding, which argues that county authorities should have parity with the funding and powers of existing devolution deals agreed with the major cities.

The independent assessment concludes that mayoral combined authorities are not the most suitable model for county deals.

The analysis shows that if devolved investment funds on the same per person scale as those granted to regional mayors in the cities are made available to county devolution deals, individual areas could receive up to £21m in new money per year.

Today at the CCN Annual Conference 2021, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing, Michael Gove, will address delegates in the evening.

Mr Gove has not confirmed when the next round of negotiations will start after the first deals are announced, or whether newly elected mayors will be a condition to unlock the most powers.

But Councillor Oliver said ‘time is of the essence’ so that county authorities have as many levers and funds as possible to help with the economic recovery in their areas.

He also said powers should be devolved directly to county leaders rather than new regional mayors.

Just three county areas in England currently have a devolution deal, with the government focusing on cities and urban areas, but the Prime Minister signalled this would change in his speech on levelling up in July.

Councillor Oliver, in his first major speech since becoming chairman of CCN in July, told over 200 delegates:

“It is likely that the first cohort of deals will be announced soon for a small number of our member councils, which we strongly welcome.

“But there cannot be any let up in the drive for county devolution. Time is of the essence in getting our economies back on their feet and we simply cannot afford a protracted wait for further negotiations.

“Which is why we want to see the highest level of ambition and pace from the government on county devolution. After all, surely the whole point of levelling up is that no part of the country should be left behind.

“CCN will continue to push for more county and unitary areas to get the funding they need, the powers and flexibilities they need and the support that they need from government.

“It is imperative that the next tranche of negotiations begin straight after the first deals are signed and for devolution to be systematically rolled out to county areas across England. The CCN will lead the charge in making this case.”

The County Deals: options for Governance, Powers and Funding report independently assesses the most suited devolution models and local leadership to spearhead new arrangements.

This is alongside the devolved powers and funding that could make the most difference to the levelling up agenda.

The report concludes:

  • Mayoral combined authorities are not the most suitable model for county deals in most cases and the government should maintain its commitment to explore alternative governance options. When independently assessed, devolving directly to leaders of county and unitary authorities is scored the most readily deliverable model to devolve and funding powers on the scale of existing city devolution deals.
     
  • The government should begin a rolling programme of county deals and not stop at an initial phase of first cohort of deals, so areas are not left behind in supporting the economic recovery.
     
  • There should be parity with existing devolution deals agreed with the major cities, as a starting point, in both powers devolved and funding available.
     
  • But the government should also go even further than it has done with the cities and grant counties even more ambitious deals. Proposals could include new powers for councils in county deals, such as a net zero investment fund to help to decarbonise areas, devolution of the Shared Prosperity Fund to local areas, powers to levy council tax on unimplemented developments and the capability to propose a tourism tax.

On the findings of the report, Councillor Oliver said:

“Our new report with Grant Thornton, to be presented later, provides further independent evidence to inform the final stages of the development of the White Paper and, crucially, support our member councils to bring forward ambitious proposals supported by the most appropriate governance models.

“It shows that empowering county and unitary authorities directly through existing leadership models offers the most suitable, readily deliverable, strong local leadership for county devolution outside our major cities.”

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