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County authorities should be the main vehicle for devolution, says CCN

Words: Laura Edgar
Strategic planning / iStock-483186066

County councils should be given more powers to lead the recovery from Covid-19. The government’s forthcoming white paper on devolution should use county authorities as the ‘principle vehicle’ for further devolution deals to secure economic growth.

A YouGov poll conducted as part of a report by the County Councils Network (CCN) found that 50 per cent of the public think county councils should have equal if not greater powers in England’s nine regional mayors. 

This rises to 55 per cent in shire counties.

Speaking at a virtual conference held by the Local Government Association (LGA) at the beginning of July, communities secretary Robert Jenrick said as Brexit shifts power from Brussels to Whitehall, there is an opportunity to shift power from Whitehall. “The prime minister has asked me to publish our recovery and devolution paper later this year. It sets out an ambitious plan, which will be a placed-based regional economic strategy, one which helps us to kick-start the recovery and to level up.” 

Also last month, local government minister Simon Clarke said it is the government's ambition to create “many more mayoralties”.

Written by the founder of Henham Strategy and former chief of staff to Sajid Javid, Nick King, Making Counties Count should use county authorities as the “principal vehicle” for further devolution deals aimed at securing economic growth.

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.”

Making Counties Count argues that for devolution to be broader but with a “fairer” and “more consistent” approach. Responsibilities over transport, infrastructure and housing are currently devolved to mayors, but the report author thinks they should be made available to county and unitary authorities.

It states: “We call for county councils to be given responsibility for spatial planning but we go further and contend that, if the government is of the view that those powers which it has devolved to mayoral combined authorities are the right ones to stimulate economic growth, it should provide them to upper-tier county authorities forthwith.”

Having oversight of place-based growth and the planning framework would help counties “forge their own path”, something that was supported by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission in a report published earlier this year. 

The 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act replaced subnational strategic planning with Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs). These were subsequently scrapped by the coalition government, which was warned by the 2011 Communities and Local Government Select Committee in a report that abolishing RSSs “would create a potential hiatus in planning matters”. Making Counties Count highlights that “sure enough, England has failed to deliver enough homes in the near-10 years since that report came out”.

To address this, King recommends that the government should ensure that all county leaders (and all metro mayors) have a “decisive say in spatial planning and are entrusted with the responsibility for developing spatial plans”. 

It notes that the government has attempted to address a disconnect between the local planning authority (the district) and their county council through the housing white paper 2017, the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 and the Housing Infrastructure Fund. “But the essential problem remains – districts tend to be too small and parochial in outlook to take strategic planning decisions.”

The report suggests that local authorities in two-tier structures should assess whether they would be “more efficient and more effective” in a unitary structure. If not, there should be more joint working at a county level with shared facilities and shared services where possible. This should be overseen and reviewed by the government.  

Ideally, the report wants a 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.”

Counties should not be split, instead the devolution white paper should insist on a minimum population for new unitary authorities of 400,000, with no upper limit.

David Williams, chairman of the CCN, said: “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.”

Making Counties Count can be found on the CCN website (pdf). 

Image credit | iStock