The new Conservative government, particularly communities secretary Greg Clark, recognises that devolution is central to the journey local government must now make.
Further transformation of our services, supported by a comprehensive devolution package, is essential if we are to reach our financial goals and meet growing pressures.
The County Councils Network will work with Mr Clark to demonstrate the need for the devolution of greater powers and financial freedoms to counties, combined with our readiness to make effective use of them. Devolution cannot remain a city or Scottish issue for long if the UK is to advance.
To ensure we can continue to integrate and improve services for our communities, we need the appropriate mechanisms, devolved power and fiscal freedoms to be put in place. Financially this should mean the retention of business rates (including all business rate growth), five-year indicative funding settlements, greater council tax freedom, more say on the allocation of EU structural funds, more flexibility to borrow and the ability to set charges at a level that permits full cost recovery.
It is about recognising that as core funding for councils reduces, we need a way to build our own resilience and the sustainability of vital local services. Fundamentally we need respect for the principle that, within the bounds of an appropriate level of equalisation, resources generated by a local economy are best spent on local priorities.
County areas need the freedom to take a holistic view of all their area’s services and take a lead. This means tailoring economic and fiscal policies, while integrating and rationalising local services. All councils have a strong role to play, using their track record on public sector efficiency to drive cost savings in Whitehall budgets devolved to a local level.
Counties must be empowered with their fellow public sector bodies to reduce the complexity and cost of local public services across local areas. Whitehall should actively champion the greater integration of commissioning and service delivery, incentivising the process and rewarding successful innovation.
The journey the sector must make will not be easy and real devolution to county areas has a central role in making it possible. Only greater devolution coupled with financial reform will allow counties the flexibility to transform our services successfully, while providing sufficient democratic accountability to local communities as we make difficult, but unavoidable, decisions.
Philip Atkins, chief executive, Staffordshire CC, and public services reform spokesman, County Councils Network