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.