Cllr Tim Oliver is the Leader of Surrey County Council and the Chairman of the County Councils Network.
Last year, I warned that the levelling up agenda must be for every part of the country, including our shire counties.
Many council leaders within the body I represent, the County Councils Network, feared that a narrow focus solely on a small number of ‘red wall’ seats would mean our county heartlands would be neglected.
But Ministers – led by Michael Gove – have been in listening mode. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, published a day after the Queen’s Speech, offers the opportunity for the Government to reset the levelling up agenda, continuing to level up the north, but crucially, also reconnect with its shire heartlands right across all four corners of England.
Although a welcome rethink of planning reforms took the headlines, buried in the detail of the Bill is a new approach to devolving powers and funding to councils in county and rural areas.
For years, progress on English devolution to these areas has been bogged down in endless debate and conjecture.
Rather than celebrating our historic counties, previous governments tried to carve them up into city hinterlands or unrecognisable ‘functional economic areas’. Urban-focused mayoral combined authorities were effectively imposed as the price to unlock a devolution deal. And when government failed to entice areas into accepting this bureaucratic model, it pitted county and district councils against each other in a war of attrition about which council should be abolished first.
This Bill changes everything. For the first time, it offers the opportunity to devolve powers directly to county and unitary authorities in England. Rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all approach of the Metro Mayor model, it creates new, less bureaucratic, Combined ‘County’ Authorities that preserve and celebrate our traditional county geographies.
Crucially, it recognises that the very term ‘Mayor’ is an ill-fitting, urban-centric title and permits others that are more suitable for a directly elected local leader in county and rural areas.
Armed with this legislation, we now have a genuine opportunity to bring decision-making closer to residents in county areas. It is important that all MPs and councils in county and rural areas rally behind this agenda which will bring significant benefits to all our constituents.
But while the Bill is a game-changer for the future of English devolution, this legislation alone won’t reconnect central government with its shire heartlands.
Whilst devolution negotiations are underway with 10 areas, the government needs to go further and faster.
The timetable for areas to benefit from these new county deals needs to be rapidly progressed – with an ambition of achieving at least two-thirds of our county areas being offered at least a ‘tier two’ devolution deal by 2025
Importantly, the Treasury also needs to put funding into these County Deals. While the essence of devolution should be about bringing more government powers closer to local residents, Metro Mayors have hugely benefitted from additional investment.
If County Devolution Deals are really on a par with those for urban areas, we need the same commitment to funding as well as the same powers.
The government has made it clear that only those areas considering a ‘tier three’ devolution deal with a directly elected leader will benefit from new investment funds, but areas are currently in the dark as to what funding is on the table from the Treasury. By laying out a faster timetable, and being clear over the fiscal benefits, this would lay the foundations for county areas to seriously consider adopting the government’s favoured model of directly elected local leaders to unlock this investment – whatever title for the role, local areas choose.
A rapid roll-out of county deals would send a clear message to the 26 million county residents that they too can benefit from devolution deals and that enabling strong, transparent and accountable leadership in the county heartlands will support and deliver the government’s ambitious levelling up agenda.
Click this link for the original source of this article.
Author: Tim Oliver
This content is courtesy of, and owned and copyrighted by, http://www.conservativehome.com and its author. This content is made available by use of the public RSS feed offered by the host site and is used for educational purposes only. If you are the author or represent the host site and would like this content removed now and in the future, please contact USSANews.com using the email address in the Contact page found in the website menu.