The new approach to devolution confirms many of the principles set out in July in relation to County Deals, including the lead role of county and unitary authorities in leading new devolution deals and the geographical footprint as either a ‘whole county area’ or functional economic area.
The framework confirms that new devolution proposals will only be agreed with county or unitary authorities, or a combination of both, with county councils encouraged to work with district councils. The Government outlines that no single authority or tier will be able to veto a proposal, with the intention to change current legislation to create a new form of ‘upper-tier combined authority’.
Building on our response to the announcement of nine County Deals his morning (see here), below we set out our response to the details of devolution framework, proposed oversight body and funding announcements;
Cllr Tim Oliver, Chairman of the County Councils Network, said:
“Today’s announcements on county deals and a new devolution framework contained in the Levelling-Up White Paper represents a significant step forward in spreading the benefits of devolution to our great counties. We strongly welcome the confirmation that county geographies will be the building blocks of non-metropolitan devolution and on ensuring that county and unitary authorities are lead authorities for deals, working closely with local partners. CCN also welcome the proposal to make to it easier to form combined authorities, for those who wish to do so.
“The devolution framework enables our member councils to directly access a wide range of powers, but this should be the starting point, not the end of the process. It is important that through bespoke negotiations and other reforms, such as the health integration white paper and planning reforms, the scope of potential powers is increased to enable county authorities to support the delivery of the Government’s 12 levelling up missions.
“CCN now want to engage all our member councils and Government on the details of the framework. It is crucial that county devolution deals have as much parity with city regions as possible. However, many of our member councils are yet to be convinced that adopting a directly elected mayoral model, whether at a county, unitary or combined authority level, provides any greater degree of accountability or stability compared to the existing leader and cabinet model.
“Improving central and local relations has been a key feature of the response to the pandemic, and our member councils will look forward to working closely with the new Regional Levelling Up Directors, who we expect to support local ambitions and unlocking silos in Whitehall. Alongside this, we recognise that the government will want to see extra accountability invested alongside new devolution of powers. The effectiveness of the proposed oversight body will be in large part determined on whether their remit is co-designed by local authorities and performance takes account of the wider system in which councils operate. This must also be judged in the context of the financial climate councils continue to operate in, with a substantial funding reductions and rising demand over the course of the last decade.”
“The network welcomes the commitment to review and consolidate the multiple different funding streams to support economic growth and regeneration, alongside reducing competitive bidding processes. However, it is disappointing that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) is set to be worth significantly less than the European Union Structural Funds that it replaces. We understand the tight fiscal situation facing the government, but this funding has been used effectively by county councils and unitary authorities for infrastructure, housing, skills, and growth projects – areas which will be key to the levelling-up agenda.
“We are equally disappointed that county councils – who are responsible for many of these large scale growth agendas – will only be able to directly access certain aspects of UKSPF money over the next two years unless they secure a county deal. While we recognise, in the short-term, this funding will be narrowly focused on ‘pride in place’, it is important that the government fully review where this fund sits after the first two years when the fund represents a more significant resource.”