Barry Lewis: County Councils can drive county deals. We don’t need more layers of government through Metro Mayors.

9 Aug

Cllr Barry Lewis is the Leader of Derbyshire County Council and the Vice-Chairman-Elect of the County Councils Network.

When the Prime Minister made his levelling-up speech last month, he said:

“We need to re-write the rulebook, with new deals for the counties. There is no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we have devolved to city leaders…”

You would be hard-pressed to find any county council or unitary leader in the country who would disagree with that statement. Just three county areas in England – Northumberland, Cambridgeshire, and Cornwall – have a deal at present. As we look to economic recovery, I know many county leaders will have been casting envious glances at the levers the metro mayors have influence over.

The forthcoming levelling-up White Paper may present counties with the opportunities we have been looking for. The County Councils Network (CCN) has been at the forefront in arguing that the levelling-up agenda cannot bypass the shires. The perception that these are all affluent areas has long been misguided – our places contain some of England’s most left-behind communities – and we are pleased that Ministers have recognised this reality.

Most important, is the acknowledgement that, to level-up places in all four corners of England, we need to empower local government to lead the recovery charge. The Prime Minister’s promise for a more flexible approach to devolved governance recognises county areas need an alternative to the combined authority model, whilst giving the option of a different kind of local figurehead to provide strong local leadership.

This flexibility is crucial, with the imposition of yet more layers of local government through Metro Mayors – clearly more suited to urban areas – a sticking point for county devolution deals in the past. Ministers have put further flesh on the bones of the government’s county devolution vision by confirming that negotiations for county deals will be led by county councils and unitary councils, working closely with district councils. Importantly, deals will span entire county footprints – either the whole county council area or with neighbouring upper-tier authorities – putting a halt to endless debates on the right geography for devolution outside of our major cities.

Using counties as the building blocks for devolution is the most effective option if the government wants local areas to take the initiative quickly on levelling-up and drive powers down to our communities. County and unitary authorities have the size and scale to do business with government – allowing for a single point of direct accountability – and the intimate knowledge of their communities to know where to prioritise support.

With the geographies of county devolution deals locked in, many of us will be spending the next few weeks and months working with local partners on the types of ambitious proposals that the government is looking for.

In Derbyshire, we are fortunate that we will be able to do this from a standing start thanks to our Vision Derbyshire model, which is a collaboration between the county council and participating district and borough councils in the area. Over the last few years, we have worked together on issues as broad as business development, climate change, and preventative services such as homelessness, through closer integration and a creative approach to leadership on priority areas of work across councils.

The work we have done in Derbyshire has given us a shared vision and helped us identify key areas to progress the approach across the county – with these being further put under the microscope during the pandemic. Work is now underway on implementing and putting in place formal governance arrangements which will fulfil the government’s aim of streamlining decision making and reducing duplication – key expectations of any county deal.

This model has given us an excellent starting point for a devolution deal and, of course, it is just one example of a collaborative local approach. I know across England that county areas will be doing the same by putting together their own visions and aspirations for their area and turning these into concrete proposals for devolution deals with partners.

The key question then is what type of devolution will be truly transformative for our areas? In thinking this through, we must focus on the powers local areas want, and not just blank cheque arguments for more funding.

In recognition that each area has its individual challenges and opportunities, many deals will be bespoke – but across the CCN member council areas there are some key asks that are applicable to us all.

We have all begun to think about how our communities recover from the economic shock of the pandemic, but we lack the tools to make a difference in re-skilling people to do the jobs of tomorrow. If we are given devolved budgets and powers in skills then we can work with our further and higher education providers to target support towards what our local people and local economies need – providing hope for young people currently looking at an uncertain future.

Equally, we want to move away from one-time and ad-hoc bids for new roads and infrastructure. Powers over transport and infrastructure will help us shape the places of the future, connecting our local economies and providing impetus for us to leverage private investment, done in a climate-friendly way.

Finally, we would like to see devolution deals that ensure that all councils in an area work together on planning for new development through strategic planning arrangements.

This collaborative approach would mean we can better join up housing and infrastructure functions, ensuring that new developments are located in the right places, and with the necessary roads, public realm improvements, and medical centres, to ensure local infrastructure is not overwhelmed.

These are just a few examples of the types of the devolved suite of powers that would enable us to shape the places we represent and the communities that elect us.

CCN is extremely positive about this Government’s renewed agenda and, working with partners, we are determined to make sure it is a success.

Johnson puts the case for more localism in England. Now he must deliver it.

19 Jul

The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.

The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery.  Why?  Because, as David Lidington put it recently

“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…

…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…

…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.

Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.

The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.

“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.

Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.

Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.

Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it.  But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.

At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it.  Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.

Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.

An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.

Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table.  He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him.  And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.

There is a good case for this approach.  “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.

The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.

Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.

But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.

Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors.  Only one, Bristol, went for change.  Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.

There are further problems about political legitimacy.  The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people.  Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million.  It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.

Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire.  But would it be practicable to  bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?

One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post.  Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?

But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?

Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services.  The first question is what to make more local.  The second is how to do it.

Which takes us to the mayors in place already.  Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside.  He already controls education for people over 18.  Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?

Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site.  Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?

For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT.  Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.

Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.

“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.”  The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.

But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department.  His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms.  He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.

One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear.  If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning.  One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.

Hits and misses. Which targets in the local elections were achieved?

11 May

All the results from the local elections are in. Amidst the drama and recriminations, how did each political party perform? Last week I offered a list of targets for each political party that it would be reasonable for them to achieve, if claiming a successful outcome. Below I revisit the lists, noting the results.

Conservative targets

  • Amber Valley. (Gain from Labour.) Achieved.
  • Basildon. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Basingstoke and Deane. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Cannock Chase. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire Police and Crime Commissioners.  (All would be gains from Labour.) All three achieved.
  • Colchester. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Missed. 
  • Cornwall. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Crawley. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Missed. 
  • Dudley. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Gloucester. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Milton Keynes. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Missed. 
  • Mole Valley. (Gaining enough seats from the Lib Dems for it to fall under No Overall Control.) Missed. 
  • Rossendale. (Gaining enough seats from Labour for it to fall under No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Stroud. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Missed. 
  • West Yorkshire Mayoralty. (A newly created post. Victory would be impressive – but not impossible.) Missed. 
  • Walsall. (Hold with an increased majority.) Achieved.

I had also mentioned that Rotherham, Sandwell, and Sheffield had no Conservative councillors at all. So gaining some representation here, while perhaps not a “key target”, would be of symbolic importance. This was achieved – most emphatically in Rotherham which now has 20 Conservative councillors. There were also several gains I had not included. Among councils, the Conservative gained Northumberland, Nuneaton & Bedworth, Harlow, Southampton, Welwyn Hatfield, Maidstone, Nottinghamshire, Pendle and Worcester. There were only three losses among councils – Cambridgeshire, Tunbridge Wells, and the Isle of Wight. Losing the Mayoralties of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and the West of England to Labour were setbacks.

Among the PCCs, we had Conservative gains in Adur and Somerset, Cleveland, Nottinghamshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Lancashire and Humberside. Those were in addition to the three targets I listed. Some pretty extraordinary results.

Labour targets

  • Adur. (Gaining enough seats from the Conservatives for the Council to fall under No Overall Control.) Missed.
  • Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner. (Gaining from an independent.) Missed.
  • Burnley. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Missed.
  • Derbyshire. (Gaining from the Conservatives.) Missed.
  • Teesside Mayoralty. (Gaining from the Conservatives.) Missed.
  • West Midlands Mayoralty. (Gaining from the Conservatives.) Missed.
  • Wirral. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Missed.
  • Worcester. (Gain from No Overall Control.) Missed.

Labour did gain the two Mayoralties noted above. But of the 143 local authorities in England with elections, they did not gain a single council. The traffic was all the other way. Among the 39 Police and Crime Commissioner elections, they only gained North Wales (from Plaid Cymru).

Lib Dem targets

  • Colchester. (Becoming the largest party – which would mean winning seats from the Conservatives and Labour) Missed.
  • Cornwall. (Becoming the largest party). Missed.
  • Gosport (Gaining enough seats from the Conservatives for the Council to fall under No Overall Control.) Missed.
  • Hull. (Winning enough seats from Labour for it to fall under No Overall Control.) Missed.
  • Sheffield. (Ditto.) Achieved. (When combined with the Green Party and Conservative gains.)

As noted above, Cornwall Council was actually gained by the Conservatives. The Lib Dems lost seats there. Across the whole of England, the Lib Dems ended up just seven councillors ahead. The independents and assorted residents groups did better than that. Yet the last time we had local elections – in 2019 – the headlines were all about Lib Dem triumphs and they gained over 700 seats.

Green Party targets

  • Bristol. (Winning enough seats from Labour for the Council to fall under No Overall Control.) Achieved.
  • Norwich. (The Green Party is already the main opposition. Further gains would be important for them.) Missed.
  • Sheffield. (Winning enough seats from Labour for it to fall under No Overall Control.) Achieved. (When combined with the Lib Dem and Conservative gains.)
  • Stroud.  (The Green Party are already in coalition with Labour and the Lib Dems. Could they become the largest party?) Missed.

Slightly disappointing results for the Green Party. They gained 81 councillors – which meant they more than doubled their total to 151 among the seats up for election last week. But that still leaves them well behind the Lib Dems – on 586. Let alone Labour – down 326 on 1,345. Or the Conservatives – up 235 on 2,345. It means my inclusion of the Greens as a “main party” is still rather generous.

 

Previous success makes the county council elections challenging for the Conservatives

25 Mar

Earlier this week I considered the elections for Police and Crime Commissioner elections and the district councils. As these were last contested in 2016, they offer the potential for Conservative gains. By contrast, the county councils represent a problem of success for the Conservatives. They were last fought in 2017. After Sir John Curtice did some number crunching, he declared that the results equated to a projected national vote share of 38 per cent for the Conservatives, 27 per cent for Labour, 18 per cent for the Lib Dems, and five per cent for UKIP. Current polling suggests a healthy Conservative lead over Labour but not as high as that – the latest one I saw had it at nine per cent. Perhaps that is a crude measure to rely on to forecast local elections over a month away. But it gives a broad indication that the Conservatives will be on the defensive for this electoral category.

Elections will take place in 21 counties – Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset still have county councils but they are being excluded due to proposals to switch to unitary status in those areas. Of those, 19 are Conservative controlled. Two are under No Overall Control. Those two – Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire – are Conservative-led coalitions with the backing of independents. One would normally expect the Conservatives to be easily winning in Oxfordshire. We shall see if the little local difficulties of four years ago can be overcome this time. The difficulty might be that even if some independents are seen off, the Lib Dems pose an increased risk.

So far as the more general political barometer is concerned, Nottinghamshire is of greater relevance. Along with Derbyshire and Lancashire, it is traditional Labour territory. For Labour to be doing well they ought to be winning these counties outright. It should not be enough for the Conservatives to be doing badly and some hodge-podge coalitions. Yet even for Labour to become the largest party in these counties would require a significant number of gains on four years ago. In Nottinghamshire, we have 31 Conservative councillors with Labour on 23. Derbyshire has 36 Conservatives, Labour on 25. Lancashire saw 46 Conservatives returned last time – only 30 for Labour. If Conservatives managed to win in these counties, even lose a few seats, it will be a good result. Even if they need to come up with a deal with some independents, after negotiations in smoke filled rooms (not that smoking is allowed in council offices these days), they should be relieved. In most of the other counties up for election Labour start with a tally of councillors in single figures.

What of the Lib Dems? They also start from a low base. Even in Devon they only have half a dozen seats. The Conservatives won a huge majority last time. They are denied the chance of a contest in Somerset – which is among the more promising territory for them. If they are guided by their encouraging district council election results in 2017 they will be looking for gains in Cambridgeshire (where they currently have 16 councillors) and Essex (where they are on eight.) It would be surprising if they gained any Council but they might be beneficiaries of some confusing results. If Labour narrow the gap; the Conservatives hold in some places; plus the Green Party and independents pick up some seats; then we could see more hung councils – a situation in which the Lib Dems, with the flexible political approach, would be well placed to adapt to.

But could the Green Party make the electoral challenge for Labour and the Lib Dems harder, by splitting the woke vote? Most county councils do not have a single Green Party councillor. The highest tally is in Suffolk where they have three. Yet some opinion polls have them roughly level with the Lib Dems. April 8th sees the close of nominations so if there are more Green Party candidates than last time, that will give an initial indication that they may be on the up.

Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“I would certainly anticipate that Labour will make gains. Derbyshire would be their top target. In the elections in 2013 they won it with a big majority. Staffordshire has moved out of their reach but they will be looking for significant progress in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. The national swing to them since 2017 may be mitigated by the popularity of Boris Johnson in the Midlands and the North but it would still be a surprise if Labour did not make significant gains. For the Lib Dems seeking a breakthrough, the coronavirus restrictions over the last year will have been a particular problem. They still have an edge on other parties when it comes to their local campaigning machine. But the lockdown has prevented them from exploiting that.”

It would be unrealistic for Conservatives not to brace themselves for some setbacks in the county council elections. But there is a good chance that a drubbing can be averted.

David Fothergill: Centralisation of social care would be a costly mistake

16 Feb

Cllr David Fothergill is the Leader of Somerset County Council and the Health and Social Care spokesman for the County Councils Network.

We’ve heard the phrase “health and social care are two sides of the same coin” plenty of times over the last few years.

The Department of Health became the Department of Health and Social Care in 2018 as the government sought to fuse a closer relationship between the two, whilst the Coronavirus pandemic showed how interrelated both services are.

The government has shown it is willing to learn lessons from the pandemic before it has finished, with last weekend containing headlines about proposed reforms to the NHS, which would unwind some elements of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

In recognition that perhaps greater integration between the health service and social care hasn’t quite worked out as well as those reforms intended, it appears ministers want to go further in deepening the relationship between the two in local areas.

We know, however, that it has been suggested in some quarters that the government may consider going one step further. Rather than closer integration, they advocate a form of nationalisation of these services, with social care being commissioned by the NHS instead of councils, as part of the government’s long-awaited green paper reforms on a future model of funding social care.

This is the model that was recently proposed by a review of Scotland’s social care system; an approach that the Scottish National Party is likely to pursue if it regains office in May.

This review’s consideration of how we both fund and deliver care services is important: how we as a country pay for social care is rightly at the forefront of everyone’s mind as part of reform. But a decision on how we fund social care through the White Paper can only come after it is decided who delivers it.

Nonetheless, unlike north of the border, we in English local government firmly believe that a centralisation of services would be a retrograde step. It would be an over-simplification that would lead to fewer care options for individuals; be more expense for the state; stifle better collaboration between health and care services; and crucially, remove local democratic oversight.

We are not coming at this from a protectionist point of view: we all got into local government to make a difference in our communities and to improve people’s lives. It is through this experience that we have a steadfast view that local delivery is best.

Of course, attempts to bring social care and health service closer together are laudable and will hopefully lead to better policy decisions, but they still perform two distinct if interrelated roles. Nor should social care be viewed through the prism of hospital discharges: just one in three people who go into long-term care each year come from hospital.

In essence, we can view the health service as a sprint: the immediate and acute health problems, in most cases are for a short period in someone’s life. Conversely, social care is akin to a marathon: care for the long-haul, with different options and intensity for people depending on their needs.

Crucially, councils boast the links to their communities: they know their people and they know their providers. From their relationships with care providers, their links with voluntary and community groups, alongside an ability to link across service areas such as housing and public health, councils have the size to be market managers whilst having the knowledge of their local areas that the NHS could never replicate.

In the debate on the future of social care to date, too much focus has been on the type of care we provide now in meeting people’s physical needs, and not enough on what care should be: enabling people to live as much of an independent life as possible.

If this future of preventative, people-focused care is to be realised, then we all need to pull together and ensure that we do our utmost to achieve it. This is why the County Councils Network last week released a report, produced by care specialists Newton, that sets a detailed blueprint on how this could be achieved.

If key foundations are put in place – namely that the government puts in place a long-term model of funding care and services remain locally delivered – this report sets out what can be achieved in the next decade if councils are put in the driving seat of local reform.

If councils, the health service, and providers, all worked more closely and intelligently with each other in wrapping services around the individual, then we can keep tens of thousands of people living more independent lives each year and make the experience better for the 1.4 million people who contact local authorities for council-arranged care each year.

It would allow us to build a model of care that allows people to live more independently: from providing more options and support to working age adults in care, to better tailoring care packages and homecare to individuals. It would also have significant financial benefits to reducing long term care costs if fully implemented, freeing up £1.6 billion annual benefits to be reinvested in services and contributing towards a more sustainable financial future for social care.

Improving people’s independence, after all, is what social care should be about. Remember, social care is a marathon, not a sprint, and allowing people to live their lives with as much dignity and freedom as possible is key.

Instead of over-simplifying the issue, let’s all work together to create a social care system fit for the future, which builds on the foundations already in place, rather than ripping them up.

Gerard Dugdill: Anger persists over the loss of our traditional counties. Proper names and boundaries must be restored.

30 Sep

Gerard Dugdill is the Campaign Manager of the British Counties Campaign, which seeks to restore official recognition for the 92 traditional British Counties

Imagine if your name was changed against your will. John Smith became John Smith-&-Jones, because you lived next door to Mr Jones. Dorothy Black became Dorothy Grey and then Dorothy White.

Smith laughed, then protested. He tried a variety of brush off tactics until, with deepening resentment, he tried desperately to stop the avalanche of references to Mr Smith-&-Jones by ripping up all mail and returning to senders in tiny pieces. To no avail. The letters kept coming…

In 1974, on April Fool’s Day, certain citizens of, for example, ancient Lancashire found themselves in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire in Lancashire, Hampshire in Dorset, Northumberland and Durham in Tyne & Wear.

In Scotland, Glaswegians have shifted from Lanarkshire to Strathclyde, then sort of back to Glasgow. Men of Stirlingshire and Perthshire have gone to Central and back. Men of Roxburghshire have disappeared into Borders.

In Wales – or England? – folk of Newport went from Monmouthshire to Gwent, then in 1996, to a beyond bizarre mix of Newport, Monmouthshire, and a version of Gwent simultaneously killed off and brought back.

Poor Wales, defenceless beyond repair. Only Wikipedia, presumably upon instruction, can officiously carry the disingenuous spirit of our legal, accounting, and insolvency, quack-speak-ridden times:

“Monmouthshire (Welsh: Sir Fynwy) is a principal area with the style of ‘county’ in South East Wales.”

All the while of course, when you complained, the letter writers – the Land Registry, say – insisted that your name hadn’t really changed, but only for “administrative” purposes. You are perfectly entitled to refer to your previous name, Ms White, even though everybody who matters now calls you just that, save the odd annoying reference to Ms Grey still slipping through.

Those “arrogant officials” have long since decided. Who did they consult? Whose wishes did they comply with?

The indignation of years of bullying, indifference, wasted money, identity denial, identity crisis, and confusion has prompted an online petition from Pamela Moorhouse.

She says:

“It needs to be mandatory for all councils to tell everyone about the historic counties, tell how the Heath Government in 1974 removed and replaced them with the present historic nonsense names, and ignored all objections.

“Why, when being forced into Humberside, were we told ‘We’ve come to get rid of your traditional areas’ if it was all admin only? The first Government statements at the time of the change were ‘That’s it! All the traditional areas have now gone! There are none left anywhere anymore!’ Does anyone else remember?

“Nobody wanted their history changing, so they ‘pushed objectors away’, and now lie to everyone, saying that the new counties have always existed.

“Ours does it by implication. ‘Would you like to know about people who lived in 50s North East Lincolnshire?’, knowing quite well that NEL wasn’t created till 1996, introduced by our then MP Austin Mitchell, carefully as everyone in Grimsby wanted historic Lincolnshire back, after getting rid of Humberside, but the council didn’t want us back in Lincs, so suggested NEL as a compromise.

“So if it’s the people’s choice, the new counties will remain and valuable history will be lost forever, as millions are currently in ignorance about the events of 74, confirmed by people’s memories in our smart survey results.

“Can these views be published so everyone knows about 74, and the new councils keeping an eye on us for 20 years so we didn’t sneak back to the old counties? Or at least part of them?

“But we must have full education, as millions have never heard of the traditional counties.”

 A Government White Paper next month will repeortedly address these grievances. Please do sign the petition.

Gareth Lyon: In defence of district councils

3 Sep

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

We are now approaching the inevitable and tragic culmination of efforts to undermine District Councils.

At this stage, to have the opportunity to extol the good that borough and district councils do, feels more like being given the opportunity to bury, rather than to praise them.

It is increasingly regarded as an open secret that the Government sees the future of local government as lying in massive county-wide unitary councils, possibly supplemented by a patchwork of parish councils.

This outcome will come as no surprise to those of us who have followed closely the treatment of district and borough councils over recent decades.

Whist there surely has not been a deliberate strategy to systematically undermine district councils and prevent them from functioning as effectively as they can, it is sometimes hard to discern how such a strategy would manifest itself differently from the effects of the cruel and negligent treatment of this tier of councils by successive Governments.

By way of context, the UK is already something of an outlier in Europe in terms of the average size of the lowest tier of local government, its funding and its powers. France, Spain and Germany in particular, entrust far more responsibility to bodies equal to, or smaller, in size than English district and borough councils.

Yet district and borough councils are a very prominent feature of local political life in the UK, and almost always the arrangement of responsibilities means that they are on a hiding to nothing.

Taking Council Tax as an example. Being a tax which must specifically be paid as opposed to being deducted automatically like PAYE or NI it is consistently amongst the most noticed and most hated taxes in the country.

It is well known that your local council will arrange collection of this (and other understandably unpopular taxes like business rates); what is less well understood is how little of this tax is actually collected for the district/borough itself to use.

Indeed, many districts and boroughs I know are obliged to hand over more than 90 per cent of what they collect to other less local and less accessible authorities, such as the county council, fire service, or Police and Crime Commissioner.

This may seem like a small point but it should not be underestimated how much responsibility people will ascribe to the authority whose headed notepaper they receive their tax demand on.

In many cases, district and borough councils have managed to freeze or reduce their Council Tax charge without this even being noticed by their electorate as it is more than cancelled out by substantial increases from other authorities.

This leaves districts and boroughs as the unloved collectors of money due to others while having no say in its spend.

The situation is, if anything, even wore on Business Rates. This absurd tax is divided between the various tiers of Government, with councils facing tax revenues being “clawed back” by central Government if they succeed in fostering local businesses, boosting economic activity, and ultimately receipts by too much… yet facing the full force of economic headwinds if substantial local businesses get into trouble, relocate, or downsize.

This awkward position, of being consistently in the frame for decisions which are made elsewhere and imposed locally – with districts and borough as the most accessible and identifiable local representation taking the blame is now established in almost every area of council activity.

In key competencies such as planning and development and licensing, councils room for manoeuvre has been strictly limited for some time – with central Government and an army of unaccountable and remote inspectors being able to overrule decisions at the drop of a hat.

Over recent years though this has extended into many new areas by the back door – local councils are responsible for attracting and fostering local businesses, except that all the decisions about key infrastructure to support businesses are made at a regional or national level.

Local councils usually have responsibility for parking, except that county councils have the ability to use the trump card of responsibility for highways to effectively dictate policy – along of course with the Government’s green agenda balancing the scales further against car users.

Councils have responsibility for recycling and numerous environmental matters – but the heavy hand of central Government is starting to fall here too – often with no appreciation for local factors or demographics.

With these and dozens of other wounds being administered to the body of district and borough councils it could be argued that the Government may be considering the right thing in handing everything over to vast unitary authorities – even if they may have been a party to the assassination.

Yet this is to ignore the fact that it is much easier for most people to get to know their local councillor and to raise issues with them. It is to ignore the fact that there are massive differences between Aldershot at one end of Hampshire and the New Forest on the other – and that local identities matter in politics.

Ultimately there is a risk that the Government ignores the wishes of local people to have the power to make more of the political decisions which affect their lives.

One could even argue that it is time for those driving such thinking to get out London and meet some people who are not centralising special advisors…

 

Archie Hill: Strong devolution must mean giving more counties unitary status

6 Aug

Archie Hill is a researcher at Henham Strategy. He also works in the research team at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Just over a year ago, during his very first week as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made a speech in Manchester, warming to a familiar theme:

“We are going to give greater powers to council leaders and to communities. We are going to give more communities a greater say over changes to transport, housing, public services, and infrastructure that will benefit their areas and drive local growth.”

Familiar, in the sense that every recent government has promised greater devolution of powers at a local level. A new wave of decentralisation is always on the horizon.

But this Prime Minister’s commitment to devolution rings true. Decentralisation may be a common refrain, but it is a long time since it has assumed so central a role in a government’s platform: the ‘levelling up’ agenda upon which the Conservatives fought and won so handsomely is rooted in local devolution. Not for nothing did the Prime Minister describe himself, grappling when pressed for a definable ideology, as “basically a Brexity Hezza.” As well as a flamboyant hairstyle, he shares with Lord Heseltine a belief that reforming local government, and setting out more coherent efficient structures which work properly, can help unleash growth around the country.

It was Heseltine, after all, whose report No Stone Unturned demonstrated the disjointed state of local government in England, with different tiers of councils operating at different levels and overlapping responsibilities; as wasteful as it is confusing. At a local level, this confusion reaches absurdity: just getting a pothole or a sign fixed can involve negotiating county, district, and parish councils, each with their own separate remit. Small wonder, then, that we found that fewer than one in five of those surveyed in our polling thought it was easy to understand who was responsible for what, across local government. This confusion leads very quickly to apathy.

In recent months, as part of a team at Henham Strategy, I have been working on a report, commissioned by the County Councils Network and published this week, setting out where the current system is failing and how powers can be devolved more effectively at a local level.

A more effective – and accountable – means of local decision-making is vital. Fortunately, the government has an opportunity to make lasting changes, in the form of the upcoming, much-trumpeted Devolution White Paper from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, ours was the most centralised state in the western world. As the Centre for Policy Studies found in their report A Rising Tide, locally determined taxes make up just 1.7 per cent of GDP in the UK, compared to 15.9 per cent in Sweden, or 10.9 per cent in Germany. But during the current crisis, the government has felt compelled to take further control of large segments of the economy and manage it from the commanding heights of Whitehall. This ignores the real lesson of Covid, which is that it is at the local level where the most effective response has occurred.

County authorities have made some of largest contributions to the national effort, ranging from shielding the vulnerable and protecting the NHS, putting in place infection control plans for care homes, sourcing hundreds of thousands of pieces of PPE, and helping secure local businesses’ futures. When previous governments talked about local devolution, too often what they had in mind was the creation of new mayoral bodies covering a large urban area, in London, Greater Manchester, or the West Midlands. This focus on metropolitan areas has been to the cost of counties and those who live in them.

Half of our population is located in England’s counties; half of our overall economic output is created there too. They already provide accountable local leadership – in the form of elected councillors – that is readily recognisable by people who live there. Indeed, our commissioned polling found that only nine per cent of those surveyed thought that mayors should have more powers than county council leaders.

A number of county councils have become unitary authorities, and many other councils we spoke to are keen to follow suit. The opportunities of a single, more streamlined body that can speak with a unified voice for the whole county are enormous, both in terms of cost savings and more effective decision-making at scale. Where district councils too often act as a brake on development and strategic planning, unitary authorities provide a more responsive, joined-up form of local leadership across a larger population. Cornwall Council demonstrates this, bringing together representatives from health, business, transport, and local town/parish councils all round one table: the result is that Cornwall has seen the highest annual average increase in new homes in England since it became a unitary authority, all whilst saving £15.5m per year through reduced running costs. It has also been able to distribute grants during Covid faster than anywhere else.

The government must make it easier for more counties to follow this path, setting out a consistent approach to unitarisation for local leaders rather than relying on a ‘deal-by-deal’ basis. To embrace levelling up, they must start by giving local areas the means to pursue this agenda themselves – from housing and planning to infrastructure, from skills and employment to health and social care. Instead of the current patchwork system, a new, more effective form of local governance is necessary to unlock regional growth and drive our economic recovery. If, where previously there have been only promises, the Prime Minister wants action on local devolution, then it is time to make counties count.