For many commentators, George Osborne’s “devolution revolution” has suffered a fair few hitches in 2016.
Yes, urban areas will go to the polls to elect mayors next year, but most rural locations, which cover the majority of the country, are yet to agree a devolution settlement. There has been little public appetite for this added layer of governance, and, crucially, agreement between all local authorities has proved difficult.
Clearly, there are still opportunities for county areas to put forward ‘bespoke’ proposals, but the autumn statement and wider economic agenda present opportunities to reframe the devolution debate in counties.
Although Philip Hammond’s speech continued a commitment to the deals struck to date, the new government’s almost lukewarm approach to devolution appears to be moving away from what some have described as a “devolution for devolution’s sake” agenda from the previous administration.
Instead, the government’s economic priorities and reforms to housing and planning have opened up devolutionary opportunities for counties outside of the sometimes fractious debate over governance. This agenda, based on getting economic results, works on size and scale to drive growth across large areas.
The chancellor has put a major emphasis on improving the country’s productivity to offset a forecast decline in growth. Considering counties represent 41% of England’s economy and contain over half the nation’s jobs in sectors he pinpointed as crucial for a buoyant economy such as construction, motor trades, and manufacturing, the success of the country post-Brexit relies on maximising the potential of counties.
Here, counties are well placed as the bodies that government can do business with.
There is a lot of resource up for grabs via the National Infrastructure Commission, and proposed highways and productivity investment. Considering this, counties have the strategic capacity to speak up for areas to Westminster, using their size to influence government departments and to plan growth over strategic areas.
Counties have the organisational capacity that smaller authorities do not, giving them greater opportunities to leverage infrastructure investment, exploit borrowing capacity, and to influence the growth agenda at scale. A real economic impact has been made through collaboration with local enterprise partnerships, businesses, and other key organisations.
The growing influence of sub-national transport bodies illustrates the importance of scale. Bodies such as Midlands Connect and Transport for the North sees counties working alongside city regions to advocate funding.
The government wants to work at this kind of scale: the chancellor consciously made few announcements of specific projects in his statement but the two he did mention, East-West rail and the ‘Oxbridge’ expressway, were led by the Economic Heartland, which is spearheaded by county authorities. Clearly, working with county neighbours can be effectively done without the need for mayors or other forms of governance.
Opportunity is ripe elsewhere in government policy.
The UK’s productivity is stagnating, while counties’ productivity lags behind the major cities, despite County Councils Network members making the largest contribution to the national economy. Therefore, counties will be crucial to both shaping and the ultimate success of the forthcoming industrial strategy.
A lack of housebuilding has locked out many from the housing market, not least in county areas. The recent National Infrastructure Commission’s report on the Oxford-Cambridge growth corridor recommends a strategic approach to planning, infrastructure and housing.
This, alongside the forthcoming housing whitepaper, hints at change. County leaders have called for planning to be made on a strategic level, developing joined up growth plans to unlock housebuilding and ensuring that local infrastructure can withstand new development.
Further ahead, full business rate retention offers the chance to further empower county authorities to ensure our areas thrive through devolving budgets over skills, adult education and infrastructure to all areas.
Firstly, the extra resource available through retention should fund adult social care, but beyond that, this ‘quantum’ should allow for the devolution of strategic growth powers to counties, allowing them to take control of transport and highways budgets, improving local areas by taking decisions on a countywide strategic scale.
This fits into the ideology of an economy that works for all, to avoid a patchwork economy, counties, with strong local leadership in place, should be granted comparable growth and fiscal powers to metro mayors that do not require arbitrary governance arrangements.
Clearly, there is a lot of opportunity to devolve down resource and powers outside of the traditional devolution settlements. But to fully grasp this opportunity, size matters in influencing government, working with business and drawing down money from Westminster.
Splitting counties into smaller authorities, or fragmenting powers, would risk diminishing both the organisational capacity to deliver growth at scale and also the negotiation powers of county areas.
Counties are the bodies that can do business with this government and that can truly empower local communities to grow.
Philip Atkins (Con), vice-chairman, County Councils Network and leader, Staffordshire CC