ResPublica to make the case for county devolution at CCN Conference

Influential think-tank ResPublica launched their new report, Devo 2.0: The Case for Counties at the County Councils Network’s Annual Conference on Monday.

The report had been widely covered in the media ahead of official release, and the study puts forward a compelling case for devolution and reform to county areas that could deliver billions in public sector savings and £30bn of additional GVA growth.

Download the report here.

Responding to the report, Cllr Paul Carter, Chairman of the County Councils Network, said:

In these uncertain political times, there remains two certainties: the requirement for growth across post-Brexit England and the need to redesign public services in the face of unprecedented demand. Devolution could be the mechanism to address both, but government must advance the devolution argument beyond cities.

This report offers some of the answers: with new forms of local government the catalyst to turn county devolution into a reality, but with county authorities and their boundaries the essential building blocks.

As ResPublica argues, reformed two-tier structures could provide the pathway to empower counties. These ‘strategic authorities’ would be led by the county council, using their scale over a county geography to make decisions on growth, housing, planning, plus rate-setting abilities.

For those who wish to pursue more radical reform, this report clearly illustrates the huge economic and public service benefits of streamlining complex local government structures into singular county unitary authorities.

 “Both models will enable counties to rise to challenges both nationally and locally; saving billions through public sector savings and allowing local areas to grow their economies and deliver the Government’s housing ambitions.”

In early 2017 CCN was approached by leading think-tank ResPublica to support a project exploring devolution in county areas and the case for reformed two-tier Governance in England.

In their analysis, ResPublica argue that to unlock these benefits, Government must embrace county geographies and upper-tier leadership as the default footprint for devolution and reform. They conclude this is the most coherent and practical means of marrying together the devolution requirements of economic scale, public service efficiency and local accountability. ResPublica’s analysis follows other influential independent reports, such as those by Localis and IPPR, who have reached similar conclusions.

Alongside a visionary case for devolution to counties, the report analyses some of the additional complexities within the two-tier system and diagnoses why public service reform and devolution have been held back in county regions. This report rightly states that the ‘current system can work well in the right conditions’, but outlines some of the challenges and the potential efficiencies that could be delivered through reforming structures, integrating services and devolving at scale to local areas.

The report provides a host of recommendations to implement a ‘a flexible path to reform’ based on five guiding principles, including strategic consolidation at county scale, which CCN endorse. They urge the Government to publish a common devolution framework, with county geographies and upper-tier leadership the essential building blocks to hold new devolved powers, and unlock their role in the wider industrial strategy. They propose two principle models for reform;

  • Reformed and retained two-tier arrangements and establishment of county ‘Strategic authorities’ on existing boundaries. This partnership, led by the County Council, would absorb the strategic decision making functions of the current system such as economic development, housing, planning and infrastructure together. Other powers and assets could be delegated downwards, to district, parish and town councils.
  • Single county unitary authorities, responsible for all plans and services for that area.

The Government has responded to the report.

A Department of Communities and Local Government Spokesman said:

“Moving to a single tier large unitary authority can often give residents a better deal for their local taxes, improved local services, less bureaucracy and stronger and more accountable local leadership.

‘However, we are clear that any such move must be both locally led and have support from the community.”

More widely, the report recommends the Government should implement a ‘boundary change link’ to ensure greater coterminosity with county geographies. We agree that county boundaries should ultimately form the agreed target for all public service bodies. Respublica also suggest that county councils should consider adopting a directly elected local authority leader as part of reformed structures. Some areas may wish to consider this proposal, but CCN do not believe this should be a condition of any devolution proposal, in line with Government’s manifesto commitment on mayors in rural areas. Moreover, the powers on offer to Strategic Authorities should be equal to those seeking to adopt unitary status and Mayoral Combined Authorities.

Overall, CCN believe that that this report demonstrates the burning necessity of devolution and public service reform in county areas. In the context of the on-going discussions on devolution and structural reforms, the report it sets out a workable and flexible pathway. This seeks to build on existing institutions and geographies through retained and reformed two-tier Strategic Authorities or unitary status for county councils.

On unitary status, this report sets out important new evidence, particularly on the economic and public service benefits of competing models, and current perceived population ‘limits’ for proposals. ResPublica’s conclusion is that new councils on the county-wide scale are the most efficient and effective means of achieving reform and devolution in county areas, adding weight to the conclusions of independent studies published last year. This report provides evidence that suggests the practicality and evidence-base for sub-county unitary options remains inferior to creating a new council on the county-wide scale.

Local areas must consider the wide-ranging evidence contained in this report. Government needs to ensure this evidence is central to the development of the much anticipated common devolution framework and appraisals of current and unitary future proposals. CCN remain committed to working with all member councils and their partners wishing to pursue reform and those wishing not to.