Autumn Statement ‘opens the door’ for major expansion of devolution to England’s counties

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2023 | 22 November 2023

After months of advocacy by the County Councils Network (CCN), the Autumn Statement has confirmed that the government is to rapidly expand devolution in England’s county and rural areas.

Following the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper in early 2022, there were six devolution deals agreed in county areas, all of which included the introduction of a directly-elected mayor or leader.

In 2023, however, there has not been a single deal agreed, with the CCN warning that the devolution agenda outside of metropolitan areas was losing momentum.

But today’s Autumn Statement confirms that alongside new mayoral devolution deals in Greater Lincolnshire and Hull and East Riding, the government will expand level 2 devolution agreements, which are deals without an elected mayor to more eligible councils. The first of these will be Lancashire, Cornwall, Devon and Surrey. Taken with previous announcements, this increases the proportion of people in England benefiting from devolved powers to over two-thirds.

These new ‘level 2’ non-mayoral deals will include the devolution of the adult education budget, alongside new powers over economic development, transport and housing. New deals will be open to county, unitary or combined county authorities (CCAs) where they cover a whole county geography.  CCN said it hoped that these deals can be build on over time, once the foundations were in place.

Earlier this year, the CCN argued that the lack of devolution was holding back a revolution in adult education, with analysis showing the number of adults taking part in adult education, training, traineeships and apprenticeships in county areas dropped by almost 200,000 people last year – a fall of 19% – compared to 2018. Today’s announcement will give all of those councils the tools to begin addressing this challenge.

Alongside securing more non-mayoral deals, the CCN remains fully committed to supporting those areas who are pursuing a devolution deal which will install a directly elected mayor or leader, including Norfolk, Suffolk, East Midlands and today’s newly announced deals.

These deals will continue to receive a higher degree of devolved powers and flexibilities, alongside a multi-year, multimillion investment fund, with the Chancellor also announcing a new ‘Level 4’ of the devolution framework for these areas. Areas with a directly elected leader that meet eligibility requirements will be able to draw down from this framework, which could make available deeper powers alongside new scrutiny expectations.

Today’s announcement brings the total number of devolution deals in county areas agreed over the last 18 months to at least 10 with the potential for many more subject to meeting the eligibility criteria. With the commitment to expand Level 2 arrangements, the CCN said the announcement, if deals are agreed quickly, could enable at least two-thirds of CCN member councils receiving a devolution deal by the end of the Parliament – a key ambition for the network.

In response to the announcement, Cllr Tim Oliver, CCN Chairman and Leader of Surrey County Council said:

“The Levelling Up White Paper heralded a new drawn for devolution in England, putting county authorities in the driving seat of securing greater powers and flexibilities for non-metropolitan areas.

“Further progress on securing mayoral deals in Greater Lincolnshire and Hull and East Riding are welcome developments, with the Chancellor also confirming that county areas willing to adopt this model will benefit from new ‘level 4’ powers and funding.

“However, many counties are unsuitable for a directly elected mayor or leader, preventing devolution of further powers over skills, economic development and transport. Today’s announcement finally opens the door for whole new wave of councils to secure the tools they need support local growth. In particular, the devolution of adult education budgets will allow us to help tackle declining participation, and develop a skilled workforce to drive the growth this country needs.

“CCN will now work closely with government, our member councils and local partners to secure as many new deals as possible before the next general election. While we recognise the more limited range of non-mayoral powers and funding, we hope to secure ambitious agreements that can lay the foundations for these county deals to be built on over time.”