New report calls on Levelling-Up White Paper to set out a clear direction for county devolution deals

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2021 | 09 December 2021

The long-awaited levelling up white paper should include a framework for how the government will negotiate devolution deals with county areas, what powers it is willing to devolve and what conditions it will set, says a new Institute for Government report, published today in partnership with the County Councils Network (CCN) and Grant Thornton UK LLP.

How to make a success of county devolution deals, published today and drawing on a private roundtable held on 22 November, sets out a series of recommendations for both central and local government.

Download the report here.

The report argues that a devolution framework would provide much needed clarity about how the devolution process will be taken forward. This should build on the principles set out last July that put county and unitary authorities in the driving seat for negotiating deals based on existing county geographies.

Other recommendations in the new IfG paper include:

  • The government must provide strong cross-departmental leadership, with chancellor Rishi Sunak demonstrating the Treasury’s commitment to devolution.
  • County deals should provide greater budgetary flexibility for local government, allowing county leaders to reallocate resources according to local needs and priorities.

The IfG recommends that to secure more powers country leaders need to provide strategic vision by:

  • County leaders should set out how their plans will help the government achieve its levelling up goals, for instance by reallocating resources to left-behind areas and integrating different public services

The government’s ‘county deals’ proposals are designed to address the imbalance of devolution in England. Since 2014, the government has devolved power mainly to city regions like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. The only county areas to secure devolution have been Cambridgeshire, Northumberland and Cornwall. England’s other 23 county councils and 57 unitary authorities, 14 of which are “predominantly rural”, remain responsible only for the narrower set of functions conferred by central government on local authorities. As a result, 58% of England’s population, across 83% of its land area, live in areas with no devolution deal.

Cllr Martin Hill, County Councils Network Devolution spokesperson, said:

“The principles underpinning county deals set out by government earlier this year rightly put county and unitary authorities in the driving seat for negotiating deals based on existing county geographies. This paper shows that to deliver a truly ambitious programme of county devolution, the white paper needs go further by embedding these key foundations within a new framework, while continuing to take a flexible approach to local governance arrangements.”

Akash Paun, IfG senior fellow and report co-author, said:

“The government needs to provide a clearer sense of direction, while leaving enough flexibility for devolution deals that reflect varying local circumstances in different parts of England. For their part, local leaders may need to compromise on governance reform if they want to unlock significant devolution, including by opening the door to direct election of county leaders.”

Cllr Martin Hill, CCN devolution spokesperson, said:

“The principles underpinning county deals set out by government earlier this year rightly put county and unitary authorities in the driving seat for negotiating deals based on existing county geographies. This paper shows that to deliver a truly ambitious programme of county devolution, the white paper needs go further by embedding these key foundations within a new framework, while continuing to take a flexible approach to local governance arrangements.”

Phil Woolley, Partner and Head of Public Services Consulting, Grant Thornton UK LLP, said:

“The roundtable and subsequent write up from the IfG shows that action is needed from both government and local leaders to re-balance the approach to devolution to date and aligns with our recent report and associated recommendations on devolution. We hope to see further clarity shared in the government’s upcoming white paper.”