The chair of the Local Government Association has described devolution as “dead”, but said district councils are “best placed” to survive reorganisation.
Addressing delegates at the District Councils Network today, Lord Porter (Con) said he did not believe the government would consider any new devolution bids this side of the next election because local government had thrown devolution in two tier areas “back in their face”.
He said: “Devolution is dead. That boat has sailed out of the harbour as far as I’m concerned.
“Government did not want two-tier devolution - they wanted big, urban metropolitan devolution to rebuild our cities.
“We managed to battle them into allowing two-tier areas to have access to devolution deals.
“When they finally conceded to let us do that, with the exception of Cambridge and Peterborough, every other area has thrown it back in their face.”
However, Lord Porter said there could be possible metropolitan deals done in North Tyneside where Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council and Northumberland CC are in discussions with government about a mayoral deal, and the Sheffield City Region which already has an agreement in place.
The leader of South Holland DC in Lincolnshire, where a reorganisation row has just been ignited, also said districts were “best placed” to survive reorganisation as they had “closer relationships with MPs than county councils”.
But Lord Porter warned against districts bidding to become small unitaries. He said: “I don’t think you will get anywhere near having very small unitaries.
“I do think a cluster of districts will become the building block [for new structures]. I can’t honestly see any unitiaries being built around a county boundary, if you are talking just about the civic county. Ceremonial county boundaries might be a different matter.”
Lord Porter said communities secretary Sajid Javid would not rule out “hostile” reorganisation bids, where there are competing plans from the two tiers of local government, with the “same certainty” as his predecessors.
And using the example of Dorset, where reorganisation plans are to be put to government, Lord Porter said new unitaries should be “pitched” at populations of between 300,000 and 500,000.
Lord Porter’s appearance was followed by former communities secretary and current business secretary Greg Clark, who outlined the industrial strategy green paper published last week.
He said councils had the opportunity to influence the strategy as it is developed over the coming months.
Mr Clark said: “Because of increasing centralisation, local government has been too timid in the past in saying to government, ’This is how things should be, this is what we know from our experience,’ and evidencing it and having the right of initiative and say ’This is how it should be done’.
“I think this is an ideal opportunity to respond vigorously and creatively to the industrial strategy.”