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On Monday 20th November we launched our report – Devo 2.0: The Case for Counties – which argues that the devolution agenda should be extended beyond the cities by embracing reform of local government in the counties.
Reform is essential in facing up to England’s economic and political challenges. Local government has, some places, risen to the occasion. But the system that exists in England is unsuitable for the roles it is now being asked to take on, roles unforeseen at the time of its creation. Devolution and implementation of local industrial strategies are advancing in city-region areas but have made almost no progress in the counties, hampered by the current structures.
This report looks to offer an alternative. We propose a path to reform that leads to transformative devolution to the counties – ‘Devo 2.0’. We argue that existing county council geographies are the essential building blocks. Through them, we can both reform the existing two-tier County/District system; and move to complete reorganisation in the form of single-tier unitary councils. The incentive to doing so should be a clear commitment to unlock the devolved powers that counties want and need, including their role in the wider industrial strategy.
If realised, this could help to transform the UK’s economy, with closer partnerships between communities, as well as wider towns, cities and metro-areas. This could enable counties to bypass the complexity of existing ‘workarounds’ between different layers of local government. It could make acting to improve outcomes simpler and more effective. And, it could provide greater autonomy and self-determination for communities at the most local scale – helping them take back control.
Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica, said:
“The needless confusion that frustrates the ambitions of business and government alike in our county areas must end now. With Brexit on the horizon and our city-regions already benefitting from devolution, we can’t afford the waste and complication that the current system creates. Single councils at the county scale are the future and we call on the Government to move rapidly to encourage them.”
Baroness Jane Scott OBE, County Councils Network reform spokesperson and leader of Wiltshire Council said:
“Just over a decade ago, I staked my reputation by submitting a bid to merge four districts and a county council to create a new unitary council for Wiltshire. It wasn’t an easy merger, but I knew that if critical front line services were to continue to be delivered in the future it was the only option. Ten years on we know it was the right thing to do.
“The benefits are evident; we have saved more than £120 million since 2010. Duplication and bureaucracy has been reduced, the property estate has been rationalised, services and staff levels have been reviewed and reduced, contracts have been renegotiated reflecting our increased buying power; and, working closely with 18 local communities we have devolved services, facilities and budgets, and delivered new fit for purpose, sustainable community buildings across the county.
The decision was the right and only one given the context of the economic downturn and the rising demand on services. In fact all elected councillors and local MPs, would agree that the move to unitary for Wiltshire has been a huge success.
“In 2017 the need for change has never been greater, with the real risk of counties being left behind. Radical reform is imperative, and unitary and county councils hold the key to unlocking devolution from central Government so that real benefits can be delivered. This conversation needs to take place to encourage bold decisions and genuine empowerment and freedoms for local authorities.
“Respublica’s report highlights that streamlining counties will contribute billions to the national economy and be good for business; but the real winners are local residents who will benefit from improved public services, less bureaucracy, and access to more housing and facilities that meet local need and demand.
“Wiltshire is a good example – establishing a unitary council has seen residents and customers benefit. Council Tax didn’t increase for 7 years, and new and improved facilities and services have been delivered in local communities across the county. Residents and service users actively engage in decisions that affect what’s best for them and the place where they choose to live. Wiltshire has driven huge change and continues to do things differently, maximising on every opportunity that comes with being a unitary council.”
Cllr Paul Carter, Chairman of the County Councils Network, said:
“In these uncertain political times, there remains two certainties: the requirement for growth across post-Brexit England and the need to redesign public services in the face of unprecedented demand. Devolution could be the mechanism to address both, but government must advance the devolution argument beyond cities.
“This report offers some of the answers: with new forms of local government the catalyst to turn county devolution into a reality, but with county authorities and their boundaries the essential building blocks.
“As ResPublica argues, reformed two-tier structures could provide the pathway to empower counties. These ‘strategic authorities’ would be led by the county council, using their scale over a county geography to make decisions on growth, housing, planning, plus rate-setting abilities.
“For those who wish to pursue more radical reform, this report clearly illustrates the huge economic and public service benefits of streamlining complex local government structures into singular county unitary authorities. Both models will enable counties to rise to challenges both nationally and locally; saving billions through public sector savings and allowing local areas to grow their economies and deliver the Government’s housing ambitions.”
Chris Richards, Head of Business Environment Policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said:
“Today’s ResPublica Devo 2.0 report is another hammer blow to the columns holding up the outdated two-tier local government system in England. Its central recommendation – that District councils should be abolished and functions merged into larger unitary councils – will be well received by England’s manufacturers.
“Today’s report echoes EEF’s Manufacturing Local Growth report in identifying the benefits from moving to larger unitary councils including allowing businesses to benefit from a reduction in the number of voices and competing visions for their local area, speeding up decision making and better supporting growth through Devolution Deals.
Report author Tom Follett, Policy Manager for Cities and Devolution at ResPublica, said:
“Central government finds itself struggling to deal with the complexity of the demands placed upon it, hemmed in by limited resources and national difficulties of unprecedented scale. Local government offers an alternative, but is being called on to take up a role which is unsuited to its current structure and design.”
“Adopting these reforms is a matter of urgency. Local government in the counties, as it currently stands, is simply unable to rebalance the economy, or provide the homes we need”.
Government should set a clear direction of travel towards strategic county-level councils
Greater flexibility should be allowed in creating new models of local government, to tie existing district & county councils into shared outcomes
A common devolution framework must be published to give clarity and incentives to local areas on what they can gain if they reform
The Secretary of State should use his powers to compel co-operation from local councils who refuse to co-operate in local proposals
Government should allow local financial flexibility from a single investment fund
Local public services should all operate on the same county boundaries, so that the gains from investments in a service can be captured.
Phillip is an internationally recognised political thinker and social and economic commentator. He bridges the gap between politics and practice, offering strategic consultation and policy formation to governments, businesses and organisations across the world. He founded ResPublica in 2009 and...
Tom manages and delivers projects around place-based policy and devolution, working across both ResPublica’s research and consulting functions. His recent projects include Air Necessities and research for Newport Council’s City of Democracy initiative. Tom’s work has featured in publications ranging...
Mark is ResPublica’s Localism Lead. He will be focusing on our new projects and workstreams, working in partnership with city-regions, to radicalise the localism agenda and realise a new vision for local economic growth and public sector reform. Mark has...
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