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.

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.

What the Red Wall really is. But why it’s also a mindset – not just geography

24 Mar

Since the Conservative Party won its huge majority in 2019, newspapers have devoted a huge amount of coverage to “Red Wall” voters, who were widely credited for delivering the decisive election result. The phrase has become synonymous with traditional/working-class Labour heartlands, particularly in the North, where people somehow decided Etonian Boris Johnson was the man for them two years ago.

How could this be? It seemed remarkable that voters that had historically rejected, even despised, the Conservatives had such a change of heart. Many Tories have spoken about the need to repay these voters; that they lent them their vote and so forth, hence the endless promises of “levelling up” in the North and other parts of the country. Labour, too, has been trying to win back “foundation seats”, a new term for the Red Wall, through a strategy that recommends “use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.

At the same time, increasing numbers of political pundits have pointed out that there’s been a tendency to generalise Red Wall voters, in terms of who they are and what sort of politics they go for. The Red Wall actually covers quite a large part of the UK, yet the term often treats voters across it as a homogeneous entity, all wanting the same things. Writing for The Critic, Lewis Baston says the “mythical wall was a way of making a patronising generalisation about a huge swathe of England (and a corner of Wales)”.

What’s interesting is how much the Red Wall definition evolved from when it was first coined by pollster James Kanagasooriam in August of 2019. He used it to describe a geographical stretch running from “N Wales into Merseyside, Warrington, Wigan, Manchester, Oldham, Barnsley, Nottingham and Doncaster”, whose constituents, based on education and economic factors, might be expected to vote Conservative but tended to go for the Labour Party.

In his 2020 blog, Anthony Wells, Director of Political Research at YouGov, says the reason many such areas vote the way they do is due to “cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories”. In former mining communities, for instance, “the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s” has lingered. Merseyside is “still extremely unforgiving territory”, he writes.

But the Conservatives were able to break down many other barriers in 2017 and 2019, in parts of Lancashire, Country Durham and Derbyshire. The most obvious explanation for the Conservatives’ big majority was its message of getting “Brexit done”, which unified voters across the political spectrum. Many were also turned off by Jeremy Corbyn, who projected a lack of patriotism among other things. Clearly the Conservatives’ manifesto and messaging appealed to a lot of new demographics.

But here’s where it gets trickier as the Red Wall was not just about Brexit, or any of the other variables it is sometimes attributed to. As Baston points out there are lots of marginal seats in the Red Wall, such as Bury North, which has “only voted twice since 1955 for the party that has not won the popular vote (1979 and 2017).” So it cannot be taken as evidence of an epic Conservative breakthrough. Others point out that there has been a “long-term structural shift against Labour in these constituencies.”

Of course, the Conservatives should be proud of making headway in new areas, but the Red Wall narrative has become too simplistic. Furthermore, Kenan Malik made an interesting point when he wrote that, “the red wall is deployed less as a demographic description than as a cypher for a certain set of values that working-class people supposedly hold, a social conservatism about issues such as immigration, crime, welfare and patriotism.”

Increasingly it seems to me that people use the Red Wall as a synonym for a worldview. We might say, for instance, that the Red Wall voters like displays of patriotism, such as the union flag. But you could say that for lots of people around the country. Dare I say sometimes the Red Wall is used as a way of getting an “unfashionable” view across (“but I doubt the Red Wall is enjoying the latest BBC programming”), where others might be worried to say it themselves. Perhaps the Red Wall is more mindset than geography.

Barry Lewis: In Derbyshire, we are releasing entrepreneurial spirit to provide green energy

12 Mar

Cllr Barry Lewis is the Leader of Derbyshire County Council.

We are looking at a very different future for society and industry, thanks to climate change. The policy shifts made by politicians and governments globally, to respond to climate impacts will change nearly every aspect of our lives. Floods, fires, extreme heat, and even albeit perversely, extreme cold weather events, have been markedly increasing and impacting us all. Places like Derbyshire have become the frontline in climate change, with significant floods and incidents that have gained national attention. My earlier article on this is here.

The Prime Minister recently outlined his ten point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and set the blueprint (greenprint?) for the UK. Nearly all (if not every) local authority has already pledged to radically cut CO2 and become net zero by around 2030 and to help our economies decarbonise by 2050. We Conservative led authorities now lead in this critical debate.

As Conservatives, we’re clear we want to enjoy a cleaner, greener, better world – why wouldn’t we? As parents and grandparents, we want to leave a better world for our children and grandchildren. Young Conservatives raised in a concerned society have a keen sense of this too. We also want a fair society built upon values we’re familiar with, namely enterprise, opportunity, and the production of wealth as the means to raising aspiration and lifting all in society. If we can do this within a new green economy, then all the better, especially as the stars are aligning internationally, nationally, and of course locally.

At Derbyshire County Council, we’re positioning ourselves, not uniquely I might add, to lead on the production of hydrogen fuel. We have local expertise, thanks to our manufacturing and engineering base in and around the county, but we’re going further. We’re thinking out of the box, something we’ve been doing since the 1700s, when Sir Richard Arkwright and Jedediah Strutt harnessed the waterpower of the River Derwent to power the cotton mills in the (first Green) Industrial Revolution.

We’ve developed a new concept of Green Energy Entrepreneurs backed by a £2 million grant scheme recently approved by Cabinet. As well as providing grants for businesses to green their operations, there is a community energy component. The green energy revolution needs to be a game-changer for our communities, and we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shift the energy market from being dominated by large national corporations to one that is primarily local in nature.

Imagine in rural areas, farmers or landowners, and in urban areas, owners of disused brownfield or unused buildings, working with knowledgeable individuals, coming together to generate energy at small to medium scale from biodigesters, sunlight, water, wind, or even hydrogen, that could be sold directly to their local communities.

Combine this with simple microgeneration systems utilising small household wind turbines (under 1m diameter giving up to 200w), a photovoltaic panel or two, and a decent but small lithium-ion battery to run the household LED lights on a 12V circuit, and a circuit to charge devices on – and you reduce the need for electricity from the local grid. And this can be achieved via an easy conversion giving free low maintenance energy. So easy in fact; why haven’t we already done this? Because current planning policies prevents us. We need to shift this once and for all.

If we swept away many of the planning obstacles to this, we would reap the benefits: like reduced need to build largescale offshore windfarms or ugly huge solar parks. We need to reduce the vastly expensive infrastructure costs of connecting to the grid. That is the killer of any renewable energy project because it’s capable of doubling the costs. Another area where obstacles need removing is hydro power. We’re blessed in Derbyshire with this resource, as are many other parts of the UK, but the licensing and ownership of waterways makes it fiendishly complicated to harness the now very straightforward ways of generating power from water with smaller, ecologically sound submersible turbines.

With obstacles removed, Green Energy Entrepreneurs could, via larger scale battery storage, supply clean energy directly to their local communities, thus making these schemes more desirable – and sell surplus capacity into the grid, benefiting either the entrepreneurs or the communities. Along with it, we can create local highly skilled jobs in a way we rarely see in rural areas and towns anymore. What better way of recovering from the Pandemic?

What we need are changes to local planning laws and fair local policies to allow this to be easy – not hard. We need Government to recognise that this shift to a vibrant, local renewable energy market will require the removing of regulatory and market barriers.

Conversely, we need to be thinking too about regulation that ensures the new local energy market is always fair and that energy is guaranteed, with high quality local infrastructure – and recognises that the provider is obliged to ensure it makes it to every local home. We can see the potential pitfalls – but they’re not insurmountable.

Let’s get ahead and start planning this cleaner greener future. Let’s make aspiring for our communities, by supporting green entrepreneurs to provide one hundred per cent clean energy – and creating jobs and skills, the cornerstone of Green Conservatism.

Robert Largan: Cutting Council Tax would do more to level up than cutting Corporation Tax

18 Jan

Robert Largan is MP for High Peak and a Member of the Levelling Up Taskforce Committee. Onward’s report, Levelling Up the Tax System, is available at this link.

At the last election, in northern constituencies like mine, many people voted Conservative for the first time. They did so for three main reasons: to “get Brexit done”; to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister; and because they wanted to see their area “levelled up”.

We’ve left the EU with a deal and Corbyn has been consigned to the dustbin of history. In 2024, voters will judge this Government on its successes and failures in levelling up.

So far, the debate on levelling up has focused on spending, particularly on infrastructure and understandably so. There is a desperate need to invest in infrastructure in places like the High Peak, whether that be our roads and railways or our schools and hospitals or even our digital infrastructure. But this spending is only part of the levelling up equation. We also need to look seriously at how our tax system works and whether the burden is spread fairly across the whole country.

That is why the Levelling Up Taskforce along with the think tank Onward have published a new report on Levelling up the tax system.

The report takes a new approach, analysing the impact of different taxes on different parts of the country. For example, taxes such as council tax and VAT fall the hardest on the most deprived regions, while average council tax per head in London is lower than anywhere else in England, despite house prices being much higher.

We often hear about how London generates £1 in every £5 of tax receipts. But this ignores the fact that London generates less tax than any other region as a share of their GDP, partly because it benefits from much higher levels of commuters than other places. If we’re serious about levelling up, we need to reassess this situation.

The report considers which tax changes might have the biggest impact on helping people in the most deprived parts of the country as we recover from a global pandemic.

Because there are lots more Band A properties in poorer regions, cutting Band A council tax by a ninth would save 54 per cent of households in the North East an average of £147 a year, 43 per cent of households in Yorkshire an average of 146 per year, and 41 per cent of households in the North West an average of 148 per year. This would put more money in people’s pockets quickly.

While another reduction in corporation tax would benefit London most, an increase to capital allowances for plant and machinery or industrial buildings would be of far greater benefit to the North, Midlands and Wales where there are far more manufacturing businesses. Such a change would lead to large savings for businesses in places like Cheshire, Derbyshire, the West Midlands, Teesside, East Yorkshire, Northern Lincolnshire and Cumbria where capital spending is highest.

I’m not seeking to write the Chancellor’s budget for him but I hope that this report can open up a new dimension in the levelling up debate and help inform how we make tax and spending decisions in future. At the very least, the regional impact of different tax measures should be a standard part of Treasury analysis.

We won’t be able to level up the whole country if the Government has one of its hands tied behind its back. The full fiscal firepower of the Treasury is needed if we are going to give real change for parts of the country that have been neglected by Westminster for far too long.