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Three-county 'Heartland' to make devolution bid

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Three county councils plan to put a devolution bid to the government this summer under the banner of being ‘England’s Economic Heartland’.

This follows the decision last December by Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire CCs to seek a joint devolution deal.

They want ministers to provide the area with a five-year deal unifying funding streams for strategic projects and economic growth.

In return the councils would deliver an additional £9bn to the area’s £46.6bn economy, and create 135,000 new jobs by 2020.

Northamptonshire reader Jim Harker (Con) (pictured) told LGC: “This area has an economy larger than that of Greater Manchester and we’d like similar devolved powers, over transport and strategic planning in particular.

“The difference is that we are counties, not unitaries like them, so we are looking to the devolution of county functions here, not anything the districts do.

“It could involve health devolution, but we are not talking about a combined authority.”

It is not clear whether the government would be open to the deal. In a speech this afternoon chancellor George Osborne said the Treasury would be prepared to agree ‘city deals’ with towns and counties, but not to devolve widespread powers.

Cllr Harker said the three county leaders had had an “encouraging” meeting with Treasury civil servants before the election and were “determined to get a better deal for the area”.

Key issues include promoting the proposed east-west rail link from Oxford to Milton Keynes, and seeking a greater influence over highways and trunk road management.

Oxfordshire leader Ian Hudspeth (Con) said: “This is not in any way a merger of the county councils.

“While the counties will work together on strategic issues each authority will be a distinct entity and they will retain their roles and responsibilities in local issues.”

The three counties’ initiative drew criticism last winter from districts, which complained they had not been consulted, and Aylesbury Vale DC leader Neil Blake (Con) responded by seeking unitary status for his council.

He told LGC: “I’m not really sure what they think [England’s Economic Heartland] will achieve except to create another layer of administration.

“It seems to be usurping the role of the local enterprise partnership in which the districts have quite a strong voice.

“We have an outline business case that shows Aylesbury Vale could work as a unitary.”


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