The prime minister’s targeting of the devolution of powers at urban areas has sparked a backlash among the predominantly Conservative leaders of county councils, a letter shared with LGC reveals.
The counties have been alarmed by David Cameron’s repeated references since the Scottish referendum to devolution that applied only to cities in England.
This has raised fears that Mr Cameron thinks an English parliament and more powerful cities would together quell demands for devolution.
Sixteen leaders have signed a County Councils Network letter, due to be sent to Mr Cameron with cross-party support this week, pointing out that counties represent 47% of England’s population.
“Counties therefore must be at the ‘table of opportunity’ you announced; anything else would not meet the principles of democracy and fairness,” it says.
“We were disappointed that during your statement on Friday morning you only spoke of empowering ‘our great cities’ and again repeated this in your article in the [Scottish newspaper] Sunday Mail.
“The great counties of England have an equal role in ensuring the economic success of the UK in sectors such as manufacturing, construction and pharmaceuticals.”
The cabinet subcommittee examining English constitutional change, chaired by leader of the house William Hague, “must engage directly with leaders across the counties of England”, the letter adds.
The CCN last week published Our Plan for Government 2015-20, calling for increased powers for counties.
County leaders contacted by LGC largely supported decisions on English matters being made by English MPs only, but felt this alone represented insufficient devolution.
Buckinghamshire CC leader Martin Tett (Con) said he supported English-only votes in parliament, but “that is not enough, England is so big that would not be devolution, and the historic counties are the place to do that. I support county unitaries, but the question of districts is a separate debate”.
John Weighell (Con), leader of North Yorkshire CC, said: “Devolution should be to identifiable areas and that includes the city regions, but not the old regional assemblies.
“You could devolve to a combined authority of say two or more counties and perhaps some unitaries.”
He said all councils “should all be unitaries because the savings from ending duplication are tremendous”.
Essex CC leader David Finch (Con) said devolution could be to combined authorities in county areas, which should gain powers over social services funding, the skills budget, business support, tax-raising “and a long list of other things”.
These would initially involve districts but, “it might evolve into something more integrated over time”, he said.
Warwickshire CC chief executive Jim Graham said the debate over English devolution should widen from structures to seeking better ways to deliver services.
“This is not simply a time for reorganisation within local government but time to find solutions, for example do you really need the [Department for Work & Pensions] and local authorities both doing benefits, and why is the skills agenda run nationally?”
Mr Graham speculated that localism could be hindered by concerns of MPs for their future roles.
“If you have English MPs debating English issues, what would they debate if matters were devolved to English cities and counties,” he said.
“What would Westminster be for? There would certainly be a tension between MPs and councillors then.”
The counties’ campaign has raised questions about districts’ viability.
Neil Clarke (Con), chair of the District Councils Network, said: “It’s very difficult to know the future for district councils but we have been encouraging them to work more closely together, clustering to provide services to each other.”
Asked about Wales’ policy of voluntary mergers of councils he said: “I don’t know a lot about Wales’ policy of voluntary mergers of councils, but I think I would be in favour of that power being available.”
Keith House (Lib Dem), leader of Eastleigh BC, said plenty of European states “successfully operate by devolving to regions of 1-2 million people.
“In my area a combined authority for the Solent and M27 area would be exactly right and far better than a south-east region, which would be too large.”
Some unitaries might not fit a model dominated by counties, Swindon BC leader David Renard (Con) pointed out. “Swindon is surrounded by four rural counties with which it has little in common,” he said.
“I think it needs a wholesale review of local government as we have an awful hotchpotch of councils of different kinds and a system designed in the 19th century no longer works.”