Cllr David Hodge is the Leader of Surrey County Council and Chairman of the County Councils Network
As new ministers start planning to build on the last government’s achievements the shrewder among them will quickly realise local government offers enormous opportunities to strengthen the economy, improve public services and keep the successful show on the road.
Those of us running councils are under no illusion – the age of austerity has yet to run its course and Whitehall is expecting further tightening of the purse strings.
No other part of the public sector has come close to matching us for finding savings while still improving performance.
Councils have seen Whitehall funding drop by 40 per cent since 2010 while still delivering essential services and in many cases improving them.
To have done this when the strain on services such as school places and adult social care are rising is amazing and it has been done thanks to the innovative approaches councils across the country have taken.
And while each council’s approach is different there is one common theme running through all – partnership.
One example in Surrey has seen us come together with East Sussex County Council to join several of our teams such as IT, human resources, finance and legal – a project that will save up to £8m a year by 2020.
But while we are breaking through geographical boundaries we are also breaking through sector boundaries.
Not only have our social care teams started working with GPs to offer patients the latest technology to monitor their health, but our firefighters are sharing premises with police officers and ambulance crews.
And in another initiative with the police, our restorative approach has reduced youth crime and saved more than £1.3m of public money.
Meanwhile, our trading standards teams has linked up with their counterparts in Buckinghamshire and our education service has joined forces with Royal Holloway College, University of London and global technology company CGI to launch a college specialising in cyber security.
These examples are being mirrored across the country. What all of us in local government are doing is nothing short of groundbreaking and it is being driven by the desire to continue giving our residents the services they want and need, making improvements and finding savings.
Those savings are considerable thanks to councils using all the freedom and discretion they have at their disposal. Surrey has saved £330m from its budget in the past five year and is on course to save at least another £200m by 2020.
The best thing is there is no template. Every area is choosing to shape things differently for their residents, ensuring that the benefits are many and varied. But critical to all of them is clear, sound and well-informed local knowledge. What we are witnessing is the mould being broken and the redefining of public services everywhere.
In my County Councils Network and Local Government Association roles I am regularly reminded of the many success stories across the country.
But so much more is possible and there is only one certain way to do it. Local government needs to be given real freedoms to shape the future of local services.
True devolution for all will allow us to address rising demand for our services and achieve better results while also going further than any minister can imagine to putting Britain permanently back in the black.
The good news is that the government has shown its willingness to extend the offer on devolution beyond cities with the renaming of the devolution bill and references to county areas in the wake of the Queen’s Speech – making genuine devolution for us all a distinct possibility.
And there should be no doubt that widening the offer to county areas would provide enormous returns – both in terms of economic prosperity and vital public sector reform.
In the case of Surrey, the county currently contributes more than £6bn annually in taxes back to the Exchequer – second only to the City of London – and the potential for us to support the country’s future economic progress is enormous. It would be folly to overlook it.
Nationally, counties cover 86 per cent of the country and represent half of the entire population. Growth deals involving counties this year are on course to deliver nearly a quarter of a million jobs and more than 130,000 new homes – figures that dwarf similar deals for cities.
So my message to the Chancellor and the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is simple – bear in mind the enormous contribution counties can make to the country.
Our scale, breadth of responsibility and local knowledge will make us a formidable force for good if we are allowed to truly take up the reins.
As ‘one nation’ Conservatives, let’s use devolution to ensure children are provided with the education they deserve, young people with the job and apprenticeship opportunities they need and better care at reduced cost through integrating health and social services so that in 2020 the country gives us another vote of confidence at the ballot box.