County leaders have voiced frustration at the government’s continued focus on urban economies after the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg gave the go-ahead for all 20 second-wave ‘city deals’ to enter the negotiation stage.
These city deals will now enter staggered negotiations on devolved powers and funding, with the aim of completing talks before the end of 2013.
However, senior councillors claim Whitehall officials have greeted “deal for growth” plans for areas outside urban regions with “blank faces”.
Such an attitude appears to clash with Mr Clegg’s invitation to authorities outside the city deal scheme to come up with their own plans.
“For the communities that aren’t covered, as I’ve said in the past: ‘Come forward. Come to government with your ideas, your demands, your commitments’,” he told a Mansion House event this week.
Describing the programme’s momentum as “unstoppable”, Mr Clegg said the devolution of powers “applies to every part of the country”. He added: “We’re working with some of those places already.”
However, a number of county council leaders pointed to a lukewarm Whitehall response to their deal submissions.
Essex CC leader Peter Martin (Con) told LGC that the authority, along with districts, health and police in the county were still waiting for a government response to the Essex-wide “deal for growth”. This had been submitted as part of their community budget partnership.
“Nick Clegg says he wants communities to come forward with ideas and opportunities. We have been speaking with government since October but so far it has been slow progress. It seems to me they have been concentrating on the 20 city deals,” he said.
“The government is desperately looking for growth and we believe we can offer them that opportunity as well as the cities.”
Although the deal was submitted five months ago, Cllr Martin said the response had been “blank looks from officials and that affects what hits ministerial desks”.
Cllr Martin has written to the government requesting a ministerial summit in Essex to progress its proposed county deal, which promises 60,000 new jobs, 25,000 new houses and £1bn in infrastructure investment.
“We’ve made little progress through small-step negotiation,” Cllr Martin said.
Other authorities are understood to have received a similar response from government to questions about whether county deals would be considered.
Kent CC leader Paul Carter (Con) said: “It is our belief the same rules should apply to county areas. Cities minister Greg Clark is a Kent member of Parliament and we have been lobbying him quite keenly.”
However, another county leader questioned the value of the city deals.
“They are pretty unimaginative and they haven’t given any cities any significant devolution of powers,” he said.