Counties need the same attention as cities for levelling up to succeed
If we are to be successful in levelling up the country, putting powers in the hands of local communities coupled with ambitious levels of investment for those places, will go a long way to delivering this aim.
The Prime Minister’s speech last July, when he promised to bring forward devolution deals for England’s counties was hugely significant for the levelling-up agenda.
I was just a few months into my role as leader of Nottinghamshire County Council when the Prime Minister said there is “no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers as we have devolved to city leaders”. He was right – I know I’ve been envious of the levers available to my colleagues across the border in the West Midlands and other cities across England.
Back in 2015, many of these discussions over devolution deals in county areas fell down because individual councils were able to wield vetoes
Fast forward 12 months and it’s fair to say that a lot has happened. February’s Levelling Up White Paper was ambitious – announcing that 10 county areas would begin negotiations on bespoke deals, including Nottinghamshire.
We recognise how much of a game-changer this could be for the East Midlands and we, alongside Derbyshire County Council and both areas’ city councils, have put in an ambitious proposal for a new type of mayoral combined ‘county’ authority.
If agreed, it would mean decisions over employment, skills, transport, and regeneration – to name a few – would be done in the East Midlands, allowing us to set out local solutions to both levelling up our left behind places and the present cost of living crisis.
For areas that do not need a combined authority, the devolution framework in the white paper provides the means to agree deals directly with county council and large rural unitary authorities, based on their historic county geographies. For those places who feel a mayor is not suitable, the white paper is flexible in that devolution is open to areas without the need for a mayor being introduced.
Following on from the publication of the white paper, the government has tabled its Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which will crystalise these proposals into law.
This is why it is imperative that the Bill gets speedy approval through this Parliament, to ensure that the county areas that have been at the back of the devolution queue have access to the powers that have could make a difference to levelling up, economic growth, and improving the situation for households in our areas.
Back in 2015, many of these discussions over devolution deals in county areas fell down because individual councils were able to wield vetoes. This Bill sets out that the county council or unitary council in any given area should be the main "constituent" authority and removes the ability for a single council to veto the formation of a county combined authority to facilitate a devolution deal. This is a recognition that these authorities must have a workable system of governance when up and running.
Rather than stripping powers from any tier of local government, it encourages and enables district councils to play a more active and extensive role in devolution proposals by pooling economic growth-related powers with other members of any newly created combined authority.
Certainly, in Nottinghamshire, the proposals of the Bill haven’t put off district councils working collaboratively with us on our deal: a recognition that the prize at the end of these discussions is extra powers and investment for our residents and that wrangling over structures would only delay this.
Once the first devolution deals are agreed, it is then imperative that the government begins negotiating the next set of deals immediately, ensuring as many county areas as possible have the powers at their disposal to address the cost-of-living crisis, levelling up, and to support the economic recovery.
Helping to ensure this happens over the coming months will be my priority as the newly elected Chair of the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, so we can get on with devolving powers to England’s great counties – it’s been long overdue.
Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield and Chair of the County All-Party Parliamentary Group
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