The government is committed to making the two-tier devolution deals it has already negotiated a reality, according to the chief executive of the Local Government Association.
Speaking to LGC at the County Councils Network annual conference, Mark Lloyd said county devolution deals are still viable.
This comes amid fears that Theresa May’s government is less enthusiastic about devolution than the previous administration was, particularly in two-tier areas.
Last week Alex Morton, a former adviser to David Cameron, said in an exclusive LGC column that central government should make clear to two-tier areas that outside of major urban areas there will be no centrally-driven devolution.
However, Mr Lloyd said: “The government have restated firmly, from the most senior levels, their commitment to devolution, which we think is good.
“The government, I believe, is committed to delivering the devolution deals that it’s already negotiated and trying to turn them into a live proposition.
“Just today we had Norfolk CC voting to continue with its devolution process, so the Norfolk-Suffolk deal is still a possibility, along with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”
Mr Lloyd also hinted that the government may consider deals that do not include a directly elected mayor. This come despite the prime minister confirming in a conference call with around 100 council leaders in September that mayors were a requirement for significant devolved power.
“We’ve heard concerns from some of our politicians about the requirement to have an elected mayor as part of the deal,” said Mr Lloyd.
“The government seems open, as it extends devolution deals across the country, to considering strong forms of governance, but we will need to have further conversations between local level and central government about what form strong governance takes.
“It’s not been clarified to date but it does present the opportunity for local areas to think creatively about what strong governance might look like and how you build on existing arrangements in a way that would give satisfaction to central government negotiators that they’ve got clear accountability at the local level for delivering the devolution commitment.”
During his speech to the conference, Mr Lloyd discussed the possible solutions to the social care funding gap that the chancellor Philip Hammond may include in the autumn statement.
He said he would be “keeping an eye” on the possibility of better care fund money originally planned for later years being brought forward to help relieve immediate pressures, and on the possibility of an increased social care precept.
Speaking to LGC, Mr Lloyd said the government could bring forward some of the £1.5bn improved better care fund promised to local government in 2019-20 to an “earlier point in the spending cycle”.
“It’s a line we’re encouraging strongly and that a number of other partners, including, as I understand, NHS England is encouraging,” he added.
On the prospect of the government increasing the social care precept - currently set at 2% on top of the maximum 1.99% by which councils can increase council tax without triggering a referendum - Mr Lloyd said: “Clearly we would rather not place the burden on local council taxpayers to fund the social care deficit; we’d rather other solutions.
“There are some councils - by no means all of them - that would be more warm to considering precepting options, so the job of the LGA is not to say that’s the right or the wrong approach for those councils, but to try to get to a position where locally democratically elected leaders of councils can make decisions about council tax.”
Mr Lloyd also told LGC that “a member of the Department for Communities & Local Government ministerial team” had told him that government’s forthcoming housing whitepaper would be “ambitious”.
He said councillors present at the meeting “took the opportunity to stress the full range of local government’s concerns that we would like to work with government to address to unlock the housing market,” said Mr Lloyd.
“One of the concerns that was pressed to the minister was the issue around land banking. He did not give us a commitment; he simply said the white paper should bring us some comfort,” he added.