CCN says devolution to county areas could be a ‘game changer’ for levelling-up, as new report backs councils to lead economic recovery

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2021 | 22 July 2021

The County Councils Network (CCN) has written to the Prime Minister to say devolution to county areas could be a ‘game changer’ for levelling up the country – and councils stand ready to turn this into a reality.

The network has written to Boris Johnson following his speech last week where he promised to ‘rewrite’ the rulebook on devolution, offering the same powers to county areas as those given to city regions in devolution deals in previous years. Just three counties are presently have secured a devolution deal.

It comes as PwC and CCN publish a new report The Future of Local Government, which concludes that councils must play an integral role in the economic and social rebuild of the country.

CCN’s letter backs the Prime Minister’s commitments, saying that devolution to counties could be a ‘game-changer’ for levelling-up. It outlines that county leaders stand ready to deliver the government’s agenda ‘through substantive devolved powers that until now have only been available to mayors in the city regions.’

But the letter urges ministers to ensure that county councils and unitary authorities lead negotiations with government to secure powers in areas such as transport, infrastructure, and skills, which could have a major impact on rebuilding communities.

Over the summer, CCN had warned that county areas cannot be bypassed when it comes to levelling-up. Written by the network’s Chairman Cllr Tim Oliver, CCN’s letter says that councils need to ‘bold and ambitious’ and with government’s backing, he is ‘certain our councils have the expertise, local knowledge and capacity’ to bring forward exciting proposals with local partners.

The letter comes as PwC’s report urges national and local government to take a ‘golden opportunity’ to empower councils to lead the levelling up agenda in England, and for local authorities to fundamentally ‘rethink’ their role in society.

PwC’s report concludes that England needs its councils to do ‘more than just survive’ and should lead the response to the biggest challenges facing the country.

Produced following discussions with a wide range of council leaders and chief executives,  it says that the Prime Minister’s promise of devolution to counties should be used as a catalyst for transforming councils over the next decade.

PwC says that ending the inequity in devolved powers requires county and unitary councils to lead negotiations for their areas, and that the Levelling Up White Paper should set out a ‘clear and equitable framework’ for councils to secure powers over infrastructure, transport, and skills for these areas. The report argues ministers must put county authorities in the ‘driving seat’ to deliver the Prime Ministers devolution ambitions outside major cities.

Watch CCN’s Chairman-Elect outline the key points from the report in a video below.

The report also reveals that yearly increases in people needing local services, and rising costs of delivering those services, will mean councils will be required to spend an extra £15.9bn annually by 2030. County authorities are set to see the largest increase in costs, some £5.4bn, with care services consuming almost 70% of their total budgets by 2030.

To meet these rising costs and to level-up left behind parts of England, the report concludes that councils need a ‘sustainable funding model’, moving away from the sporadic use of short-term funding pots to enable local government to make strategic investments in local areas.

Encouraging councils to ‘rethink’ their organisations and role in society, the report calls for councils to accelerate change and investment in the leaders of tomorrow, take an active role in shaping places, build more flexible working arrangements for their workforce, and embrace technology and automation in the delivery of services.

Cllr Tim Oliver, Chairman-Elect of the County Councils Network, said:

The Prime Minister’s commitment to rewrite the rule book on devolution to counties could be a game-changer for the levelling up agenda, demonstrating a real vote in confidence for ambitious local leadership outside our major cities. We now need words to turn into action on the ground, with this report backing county and unitary authorities to lead negotiations and work with partners to secure substantive powers in areas such as infrastructure, transport, and skills.

Today’s report showcases local government’s achievements during the pandemic, and rightly concludes that it is best to lead the charge on the most pressing social and economic challenges in our communities. More than ever before, England needs its councils to do more than survive. It needs us to be proactive, engaging, and resilient – capable of helping people achieve their aspirations, and in supporting local populations as they look to recover and rebuild.

“But as this analysis shows, local government is currently hamstrung by a lack of funding. Councils have operated hand-to-mouth for the last decade and demand for services is set to rise sharply. It rightly concludes that local government needs sustainable long-term funding, while also throwing down the gauntlet to councils to fundamentally change how they operate.”

Paul Deegan, Lead Partner, Health Industries and Local Services Consulting at PwC, said:

“Our analysis shows that fundamental decisions must be taken now about the shape, resources and powers local authorities will need to continue to lead their places. Now is the time to capitalise on the role councils can play as leaders of place and ensure they remain relevant in 2030. This is a golden opportunity. Local government recognises the need for accelerated change. National government needs to create the environment that allows this to happen.

“National government has an opportunity to recognise the strength of local government and the level of trust placed in councils by their residents. By putting councils with the size and scale to lead at a local level in the driving seat, agreeing more ambitious devolution deals at a county level, it is much more likely to achieve its levelling up ambitions.”