The government has proposed the return of aldermen to councils in its green paper on industrial strategy, launched today.
The Building our Industrial Strategy paper, launched earlier by prime minister Theresa May, said: “We will work with local government to review how to bring more business expertise into local governance, and improve links between councils and the private sector.
“An example might be the creation of a modern ‘alderman’ type of role within local government.”
Aldermen were unelected but voting members of councils. The post was abolished in 1973 with the exception of the City of London Corporation.
Nothing in the green paper elaborated on the role and powers of ‘modern aldermen’. The Local Government Association is seeking clarification.
A Department for Communities & Local Government spokesman told LGC the alderman role was “just one option being explored” to improve links between councils and the private sector.
A central proposal of the strategy is to drive growth through “sector deals” which are between the government and specified industrial sectors that need Whitehall support to meet their potential. The first sectors covered are life sciences, ultra-low emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, nuclear and creative industries.
Prime minister Theresa May said: “The modern industrial strategy will be underpinned by a new approach to government, not just stepping back but stepping up to a new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success.”
The paper notably admits at several points that the country has been over-centralised without this concentration of power in Whitehall delivering economic success.
It pointed to regional wealth imbalances greater than in competitor nations that “hold back the country’s growth and limit opportunities for too many people”. The paper added: “We should confront the fact that our economy is one of the most centralised in the world, with institutions that are often too fragmented to provide the most effective leadership in shaping successful places.
“Evidence and experience suggests that strong, streamlined, decentralised governance – such as through our city deals, growth deals and mayoral devolution deals – can improve economic decision-making and spur innovation and productivity gains.”
The paper said the government wanted to “explore further devolution deals for our largest cities, where they will increase economic growth”.
Anne Western (Lab), County Councils Network spokesman for economic growth and prosperity, and Derbyshire CC’s leader, said: “Considering counties have lower than average productivity, and infrastructure gaps amounting to billions, government must ensure that all four corners of the country benefit from this strategy, and that this opportunity is taken to devolve powers and resources to counties, not simply continuing to focus on the big cities.”
The green paper conceded there had been “an historic lack of clear long-term thinking” or strategy to national infrastructure projects which has led to “a legacy of underinvestment”.
Ministers said infrastructure decisions should be “better matched with local economic plans to boost productivity locally and support places that have suffered historical underinvestment”.
Central government would “never have the information it needs to identify the opportunities that emerge in different areas”, or provide the focus needed to develop successful industrial clusters, the paper said.
A review of the role of local enterprise partnerships in delivering growth “examining how we can spread best practice and strengthen” them is also planned.
LGA chair Lord Porter (Con) said it was “encouraging” the government’s industrial strategy “recognises the vital role local leaders must play in boosting economic growth and prosperity across the whole country”. He said: “Councils know their local economies best and stand ready to work with government to develop this strategy and create an economy that works for all.”
To do this councils would need “greater freedom and funding from central government to build more homes, secure the infrastructure essential to economic growth”, improve roads and peoples’ skills, he added.
Lord Porter said the paper represented “an opportunity to bring together fragmented national growth-related funding which sees £23bn spread out across 70 funding streams and managed by 22 government departments and agencies”, and called for the devolution of employment support and skills funding to councils.
Ms May also today set out further funding for local enterprise partnerships in the Northern Powerhouse. Communities secretary Sajid Javid said in a written ministerial statement that he would announce allocated funding to other regions in the “coming weeks”.