The long-awaited levelling up white paper should include a framework for how the government will negotiate devolution deals with county areas, what powers it is willing to devolve and what conditions it will set.
This report, published in partnership with the County Councils Network and Grant Thornton UK LLP and drawing on a private roundtable held on 22 November, sets out a series of recommendations for both central and local government. It finds that some local leaders are cautious about committing resources to negotiating county deals until the government’s position becomes more clearly defined – one roundtable participant warned of “chaos” if government just “lets a thousand flowers bloom”.
‘County deals’, announced by Boris Johnson in July, involve the transfer of powers in areas like transport, housing and skills – but little has been said publicly about how these deals will be negotiated and implemented, beyond a core set of ‘principles’. The white paper – due for publication before Christmas, but reportedly delayed until the new year – is expected to include details of a first wave of pilot deals.
A devolution framework would provide much needed clarity about how the devolution process will be taken forward. This should build on the principles set out last July that put county and unitary authorities in the driving seat for negotiating deals based on existing county geographies.
Other recommendations include:
- The government must provide strong cross-departmental leadership, with chancellor Rishi Sunak demonstrating the Treasury’s commitment to devolution.
- County deals should provide greater budgetary flexibility for local government, allowing county leaders to reallocate resources according to local needs and priorities.
The paper recommends that to secure more powers country leaders need to provide strategic vision by:
- setting out how their plans will help the government achieve its levelling up goals, for instance by reallocating resources to left-behind areas and integrating different public services
- strengthening local leadership, perhaps by introducing a directly elected leader for a county or unitary authority.