Devolution is open to counties as well as cities under the new government, according to the party’s leader on the Local Government Association.
The Tory manifesto promised “far-reaching powers” to “large cities which choose to have elected mayors”. That led council leaders in non-urban areas to criticise the pledge as they voiced concerns that district and county councils were getting left behind in relation to gaining powers and financial freedoms.
However, LGA Conservative group leader Gary Porter, who is also leader of South Holland DC, told LGC: “The cities bit [in the manifesto] is badly worded. [Devolution] will be to county areas as well. It will be to any area that makes geographical sense to do on a combination level. [Councils] just need to be able to get themselves together.”
Cllr Porter said he had received personal assurances that devolution was not just limited to cities. “The door is open,” he said, speaking before the appointment of Greg Clark as communities secretary.
“Much to Eric’s [Pickles] disgust and frustration we are taking too long to get Conservative versions of [devolution deals] on the table. That door has been open to us for a while but we have failed to put anything on the table,” he said.
“That is our fault, not theirs. They are properly keen.”
Councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are currently setting up combined authorites and hope to win devolution of powers over jobs and employment, skills, transport and housing.
When asked if the argument that wide-ranging devolution should not be dependent on elected mayors was getting through to the Conservative national leadership, Cllr Porter said: “No. We will keep trying and hopefully one day somebody might listen but it’s not looking likely.”
Cllr Porter thought smaller-scale devolution deals were “still worth it” as it was “the start”. He said: “It’s local government’s job to step up and take what’s on offer, show that it works, and then that makes our case stronger for them giving us more whether they like it or not.”
The Conservative manifesto said the party would “legislate” Greater Manchester’s devolution deal , which includes the introduction of a directly elected mayor in 2017. Andrew Carter, deputy chief executive of Centre for Cities, said that was “vital” as the deal was in the interests of all cities.