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Call to reform local government to resolve devolution deadlock

Words: Huw Morris

New forms of local government are needed to resolve England’s current devolution deadlock, according to a leading think tank.

ResPublica says existing counties should form the building blocks for taking on devolved powers. The county scale was the right size for councils to take the lead on creating local industrial strategies for their area, it said, which would unlock both local and national growth.

Reform to the existing two-tier system is urgently needed, it says, to deliver the ambitious changes and avoid the risk of counties becoming “left-behind” the cities.

The think tank proposes two models for future devolution. In the first, single unitary authorities at the county scale, should be responsible for all plans and services for that area. In the second, reformed two-tier arrangements, with county councils acting as the strategic authority with responsibility for strategic planning in housing, infrastructure, and economic development. Existing district councils would have cabinet-style decision-making powers.

Adopting the proposed reforms, followed by handing the counties devolved powers similar to London and Manchester, could enable additional growth of up to £31 billion in England’s counties over five years. This is a result of savings from single local councils of £2.9 billion, and efficiencies gained from devolving power of £36.2 billion being reinvested in local growth.

ResPublica says current arrangements cause confusion for businesses and developers, which can find their operations frustrated by parochial decision-making on important strategic issues. The reforms would allow businesses and investors to have one point of contact, one set of regulations and paperwork, and much more direct input into planning of infrastructure and employment land.

Reforms would also help tackle the housing crisis, it added, with only 30 per cent of two-tier areas delivering enough homes to meet their growing populations, while 60 per cent of county unitary councils are doing so. Moving to joining up planning and infrastructure functions could ensure that the right homes and infrastructure are built in the right places.

County Councils Network chairman Paul Carter said the proposals show huge economic and public service benefits of streamlining complex local government structures.

“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,” he added.

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