Cllr David Hodge is the Leader of Surrey County Council and Chairman of the County Councils Network
Last week County leaders from across England gathered in Buckinghamshire for the annual CCN Conference.
As politicians our eyes were firmly focused on next year’s contest. But whatever the party, our future thoughts were also on how we could improve the lives of our residents by applying the principles of One Place, One Budget and the other proposals from CCN’s Our Plan for Government.
I cannot remember a time when the financial pressures on counties have been greater whilst the ambitions of County Councillors for their areas have never been higher.
The watch word at this year’s conference was devolution and what it can bring for our communities. It means bringing decisions about how best to support local people and places closer to those they affect. We believe local people should have more say in decisions around local infrastructure, directing local investment, getting people into new jobs and with the right skills and the crucial choices about public services delivery. Devolved decisions lead to better services and real efficiency savings.
CCN’s Plan for Government, published shortly before the historic referendum in Scotland, was the start of a new conversation with Whitehall. This conversation is being guided by the vision of One Place, One Budget with the aim of a wider transformation in the public sector vital for better services and lower costs.
In research conducted by CCN, 87 per cent of senior councillor and executives were confident they could make significant savings and improve local outcomes if empowered through devolution. We applaud the Government’s decisions to devolve powers to Manchester, but there is no reason to limit this devolution to a handful of urban areas. At a time when every part of the UK is striving for sustainable growth and there are historic transitions taking place in local services, we cannot allow a devolution divide to open up between metropolitan areas and everyone else. Our members were clear, 90 per cent think devolution to local areas needs to happen and 81 per cent want it to happen within the next two years. We cannot afford delays.
Already ambitious counties are discussing with Government how they can prove readiness and what new powers and freedoms are on offer for their areas. We keenly anticipate future announcements. But we maintain that we must have a devolution settlement from Government for all local areas that are ready– we cannot continue with counties having to ask Whitehall’s for permission to succeed for local people.
From South Eastern counties aiming to step out of London shadow, to those in the Midlands with exceptional plans for growth, to the fiercely independent areas in the North and South West who want a greater say in their region’s future, counties are united behind the call to allow us to do more for our residents.