Fairer approach to devolution in rural areas needed

A new report has concluded that county areas should be given a major new suite of powers to lead post-coronavirus recovery efforts.

The report, Making Counties Count, finds that fewer than one in ten people believe directly elected mayors should have more powers than county council leaders, with 50 per cent of the public – rising to 55 per cent in shire counties – saying that county councils should have equal if not greater powers than England’s nine regional metro mayors. According to the report, only nine per cent believe that mayors should have more powers than county leaders.

The report, written by Henham Strategy and led by Nick King, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Sajid Javid, argues that the government’s forthcoming white paper on devolution and local recovery should use county authorities as the ‘principle vehicle’ for further devolution deals aimed at securing economic growth.

Just two county areas currently have a devolution deal, with such deals having been focused on city and urban areas to date. The report concludes that devolution needs to be broader and deeper with a ‘fairer’ and ‘more consistent’ approach in the future, arguing that responsibilities over transport, infrastructure and housing, currently devolved to mayors, should also be made available to county and unitary authorities.

Henham Strategy’s report concedes that the mayoral model could add value on a regional basis, if supported by new powers for county councils and major restructuring of local government. It argues for the creation of single unitary councils, ideally along county lines, to end the ‘confusing’ two-tier model of local government which is ‘less effective, less efficient and less sustainable’.

The report recommends government should avoid splitting counties and use the devolution white paper to insist on a minimum population for new unitary authorities of 400,000, with no upper limit. Local Government minister Simon Clarke has suggested that reorganisation would be a requirement of securing a devolution deal, with a preference for more mayors in England.

Nick King 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.”

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.”