The communities secretary has declared himself open to devolution proposals covering two-tier areas but has warned “the full Monty” of additional powers will only be available when areas install an elected mayor.
Sajid Javid’s comments at the County Councils Network annual conference in Guildford amount to the most comprehensive statement of his views about devolution since gaining office in July and follow speculation that Theresa May’s government had lost interest in devolution in two-tier areas.
The communities secretary also praised Buckinghamshire CC’s recent proposal to form a single, county-wide unitary authority – and state how well several existing county unitaries are performing – although he did not say that the same model should be replicated everywhere.
Mr Javid said the Brexit vote showed people do not want decisions made by “a remote, anonymous elite” and that this meant “ambitious” devolution deals would only be granted to areas with elected mayors included.
“I get that directly elected mayors aren’t universally popular within all of local government and that is especially true of the counties,” he said.
“If you don’t want a directly elected leader, that’s fine. I’m not going to demand that anyone has one, but I’m not going to devolve significant new powers and taxpayers’ money without a corresponding increase in local accountability. It’s a real red line for me when it comes to negotiating devolution deals. A directly elected mayor will get you the full Monty: everything I can offer you under the terms of the 2016 act.”
Mr Javid said councils’ record on driving business-led development and better value for money public services meant his “door will always be open to councils with interesting, locally-driven solutions to the challenges we face”.
“Some councils are even prepared to think about changing the very structure of local government itself,” he added. ”Buckinghamshire has just delivered a detailed, innovative and original proposal to transform the council into a single unitary authority.
“It’s a long way to go yet, a lot of conversations still to be had, a lot of decisions to be made, and I certainly don’t want to say anything today that could prejudice any of that. But the plans that have been put forward by [council leader] Martin [Tett (Con)] and his team are exactly the kind of proactive, locally driven thinking that I want to see.
“Unitary status can be a great model. It certainly seems to be working well in Durham, Wiltshire and elsewhere. As we’ve seen from the CCN reports published last week [which claimed that a move to single-county unitaries could save up to £2.9bn over five years], it has the potential to save lots of money.
“But I’m not for one moment saying it’s for everyone. I’m not even saying it’s definitely right for Buckinghamshire. It is not going to be imposed. If you choose to stick with a two-tier model, I’m not going to send Lord Heseltine round to play with your kids’ pet dog.”
Mr Javid also commended councils for having “evolved to meet the needs of the day” during austerity.
“In the past six years we in central government have asked a lot of you and you have certainly delivered,” he said.
“The savings you have achieved have been nothing short of remarkable. We asked you to put forward efficiency plans and sign up for four-year funding settlements and nearly every council in England has done exactly that.”
“Councils have done so well because they thought for themselves. We in central government have set the destination – better value for money, business led development – and you have worked out your way of getting there.”