Delivering the Levelling Up Bill must be a priority
We are still less than a month into the new government but it has already shown it wants a clean break from the past, having been quick off the blocks to announce the energy bill price cap followed by a mini-Budget.
This is not surprising. The new Prime Minister has made raising productivity to grow the economy the key priority for the new government.
But in order to achieve the kind of growth needed to make any recession as short-lived as possible and to help alleviate the cost-of-living crisis for communities – it is vital that economies in all four corners of the country are doing their bit. Local authorities are stepping up to put forward ambitious economic growth plans, but the reality is that our ambitions are stunted by a lack of powers.
We cannot afford to lose momentum on devolution
This is why it is vital that one area where it should be business as usual should be in the levelling up agenda.
Since the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper – which correctly identified many of the regional growth challenges in England – the previous government pressed on with its agenda to empower local leadership through devolved powers and funding to county areas. Agreements were signed with Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and North Yorkshire over the summer, all the result of strong collaboration between county councils, unitary and district councils, alongside MPs.
These were genuinely landmark deals, the first devolution agreements signed with a county area since 2015 with previous administrations hitherto focused on empowering urban and city areas. More importantly, they contain significant powers in transport, infrastructure, and adult education, as well as bespoke investment pots amounting to over £1bn for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and over £600m for Yorkshire. This level of inward investment has been hailed as transformative by local councillors of all political hues.
With more devolution deals waiting in the wings, it is vital that, with public approval, these deals come into being and local leaders have the powers and resource to address regional productivity shortfalls.
But the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire agreement can only come into existence if measures in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill are approved through Parliament because of the structure of the devolution deal, and many on the cusp of being agreed are likely to require the same.
Many councils and MPs have legitimate concerns over some of the planning reforms within the Bill, but we cannot afford to lose momentum on devolution. If necessary, we would encourage the new government to explore the possibility of decoupling these elements from the Bill from the vitally important devolution measures so that ambitious devolution deals can come into existence while ministers potentially rethink planning proposals.
If the Bill is shunted into the “too difficult box”, or ministers change direction on devolution, then billions worth of investment for local areas is put at risk, as well as the growth that this investment and devolved economic levers could have generated.
Indeed, the County Councils Network would like to see the new government go further and faster than before, picking up the devolution baton from its predecessor and running with it.
In Simon Clarke as Levelling Up Secretary we have someone who champions regional investment, and we urge his new department to agree devolution deals with two-thirds of the CCN’s 36 county areas by 2025. An ambitious target – but difficult economic headwinds require ambitious solutions.
It is fair to say the new Prime Minister inherits a difficult in-tray, but in local government she has a key partner to help navigate the economic challenges the country is facing. We just need the powers and investment to match our – and the Prime Minister’s – ambitions.
Cllr Martin Hill, devolution spokesperson for County Councils Network.
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