New report urges ‘fairer’ approach to devolution in county areas

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2020 | 04 August 2020

A new report exploring the devolution agenda has concluded that government should provide substantive powers and budgets to county authorities and unitary councils urgently, to give them the best possible chance to address the economic impact of Coronavirus.

Ahead of a renewed devolution drive by the government, expected to be outlined in its white paper on devolution and local recovery, the report, Making Counties Count, by Henham Strategy calls for a fairer and more consistent approach to devolution across the country.

Download the report here.

Henham Strategy were commissioned to produce this report by the County Councils Network (CCN). The work, ideas and recommendations contained within this document are, except where indicated, those of Henham Strategy.

CCN and its member councils will consider the report’s key conclusions.

The report was co-authored by Nick King, the former chief of staff to the then-Community Secretary Sajid Javid. He argues that county authorities should be the principle vehicle for further devolution deals, made the more imperative by the economic impact of Coronavirus.

Henham Strategy concludes that if the government believes that the powers it has given to metro mayors are the right levers for economic growth, it should devolve them to county authorities urgently and without the imposition of a mayor.

The report also explores local government reorganisation, with the government linking devolution with reorganisation. The report warns against a maximum population size for unitarities, and warns over the economic impact of breaking up county areas.

Polling carried out by YouGov for the report shows:

  • Just one in ten (9%) of people believe metro mayors should have more powers than county leaders.
  • 50% of people – rising to 55% in county areas – say that county authorities should have equal or greater powers than the ones currently given to England’s nine metro mayors.
  • Less than one in five (18%) of people find it easy to understand what services their local councils provide, with over two-thirds unsure of how local government is structured.

With the government seeking to create more unitaries, with their approach expected to be crystallised in the forthcoming white paper, the report backs this approach if they are based on current county geographies.

It calls for government to move to a system of single tier local authorities based on current county council boundaries, with new powers for town and parish councils to focus on genuinely local issues. Not only do they conclude single county unitary authorities deliver the greatest financial benefit and would be most understandable to the public by retaining local identities, they would also provide the most coherent geography to develop local economic recovery strategies.

The report presents new economic analysis showing the break-up of England’s county councils into multiple unitary authorities could lead to the creation of a two-speed economy in these areas, to the detriment of the government’s levelling-up agenda.

Cllr David Williams, chairman of the County Councils Network, said:

“This is a timely report looking into the ways and means we can drive economic growth in county areas, made more pressing with the significant impact Coronavirus will have on our areas. We will reflect on its recommendations.

“The report clearly articulates the importance of county and unitary geographies in generating the type of recovery our communities need, and we back its calls for a fairer and more consistent approach to devolution. Whilst elected mayors have shown their effectiveness on a regional platform, it is clear from this report that there is a question mark, not least from the public, on their suitability for individual county areas.

“With the need urgent, the government should focus its energy on spreading devolution to county areas, reforming the planning system, and moving forward with unitary councils, where they are desired by our member councils, on county footprints so local governance is fit for purpose and provides the best chance for economic recovery, rooted in the realities of 2020.”

Nick King, founder of Henham Strategy and former Chief of Staff to Sajid Javid said:

“If we are going to be successful in levelling up the economy, stimulating growth and recovering from the Covid pandemic, we need every part of our country to be firing on all cylinders – and that includes local government.

“Local Government in England is baffling to most people and in clear need of overhaul: two-tier Government is simply less effective, less efficient and less sustainable. Whilst simplifying structures by creating more unitary councils, the Government should also put significant powers into local hands.

“We need broader and deeper devolution across the board with counties made into engines of growth and given new powers to deliver on that ambition. If the government believes the powers it has given to mayors are the best way of driving growth, they should give those same powers to counties immediately.”