Devolution and Reform

Devolved powers and funding give local areas a greater chance to shape their own destinies and after falling by the wayside in recent years, the devolution agenda is undergoing a reboot under this government’s flagship ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

Just three county areas presently have a devolution deal, but in the summer the Prime Minister made a speech on how his government was to begin to level-up the country, and he made it clear that county councils and unitary councils are integral to both levelling-up and economic recovery from the pandemic. He promised that his government was to begin negotiating county devolution deals for, and argued there was no reason why those places should not be given the same devolved powers as the cities.

This followed County Councils Network advocacy, where the network argued that the levelling-up agenda cannot overlook left-behind county communities.

Since the summer announcement, discussions over county devolution deals are ongoing ahead of the expected publication of a Levelling-Up White Paper. It is expected that the first tranche of deals could be announced by the end of year, with more to follow in 2022. Recognising that the government is looking for ‘strong local leadership’, CCN has argued that ministers should seek to build on the blocks and local leadership already in place in our areas, as argued by leading think-tanks in reports by Henham Strategy, Localis, and ResPublica. A county authority acts as a practical and effective layer of governance: large and strategic yet embedded in local communities and recognised.

Alongside devolution,  some county areas have outlined that they wish to explore local government reorganisation. Somerset, Cumbria, and North Yorkshire are all going through reorganisation processes presently, in addition to Dorset and Buckinghamshire in recent years.

For those pursuing that agenda, the County Councils Network’s agenda-setting evidence with PwC presents a compelling case to inform those areas considering reform and for government in assessing different proposals. CCN has also undertaken significant research to support those councils wishing to explore non-structural reform with their district councils through greater collaboration and functional reform of powers.

Devolution and Reform Key Asks

It should not be mandatory that local areas must accept a mayoral model of governance in return for a devolution deal. There must be some local discretion within the framework.

The Levelling-Up White Paper should provide clear guidance to local areas on acceptable devolution geographies, seeking co-terminosity with county boundaries and avoiding inappropriate geographies that could undermine continuing service delivery – as well as the suite of powers available to county areas as part of deals.

Future devolution deals should provide the opportunity to give county areas as much parity with mayoral combined authorities as possible.

There should be a clear criteria for unitary reform. This should include confirmation of a minimum population limit ‘substantially more’ than 300,000 with no upper population limit; ensure proposals offer better public service delivery across the area; and provides the thresholds and tests of local consensus.

Set out a framework to encourage reform to the existing two-tier structure and greater collaboration in specific service areas, including the options for functional reform of powers between the tiers.

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Timelines: County Council Policies
Announcement Date: 25/03/2020