Archie Hill is a researcher at Henham Strategy. He also works in the research team at the Centre for Policy Studies.
Just over a year ago, during his very first week as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made a speech in Manchester, warming to a familiar theme:
“We are going to give greater powers to council leaders and to communities. We are going to give more communities a greater say over changes to transport, housing, public services, and infrastructure that will benefit their areas and drive local growth.”
Familiar, in the sense that every recent government has promised greater devolution of powers at a local level. A new wave of decentralisation is always on the horizon.
But this Prime Minister’s commitment to devolution rings true. Decentralisation may be a common refrain, but it is a long time since it has assumed so central a role in a government’s platform: the ‘levelling up’ agenda upon which the Conservatives fought and won so handsomely is rooted in local devolution. Not for nothing did the Prime Minister describe himself, grappling when pressed for a definable ideology, as “basically a Brexity Hezza.” As well as a flamboyant hairstyle, he shares with Lord Heseltine a belief that reforming local government, and setting out more coherent efficient structures which work properly, can help unleash growth around the country.
It was Heseltine, after all, whose report No Stone Unturned demonstrated the disjointed state of local government in England, with different tiers of councils operating at different levels and overlapping responsibilities; as wasteful as it is confusing. At a local level, this confusion reaches absurdity: just getting a pothole or a sign fixed can involve negotiating county, district, and parish councils, each with their own separate remit. Small wonder, then, that we found that fewer than one in five of those surveyed in our polling thought it was easy to understand who was responsible for what, across local government. This confusion leads very quickly to apathy.
In recent months, as part of a team at Henham Strategy, I have been working on a report, commissioned by the County Councils Network and published this week, setting out where the current system is failing and how powers can be devolved more effectively at a local level.
A more effective – and accountable – means of local decision-making is vital. Fortunately, the government has an opportunity to make lasting changes, in the form of the upcoming, much-trumpeted Devolution White Paper from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, ours was the most centralised state in the western world. As the Centre for Policy Studies found in their report A Rising Tide, locally determined taxes make up just 1.7 per cent of GDP in the UK, compared to 15.9 per cent in Sweden, or 10.9 per cent in Germany. But during the current crisis, the government has felt compelled to take further control of large segments of the economy and manage it from the commanding heights of Whitehall. This ignores the real lesson of Covid, which is that it is at the local level where the most effective response has occurred.
County authorities have made some of largest contributions to the national effort, ranging from shielding the vulnerable and protecting the NHS, putting in place infection control plans for care homes, sourcing hundreds of thousands of pieces of PPE, and helping secure local businesses’ futures. When previous governments talked about local devolution, too often what they had in mind was the creation of new mayoral bodies covering a large urban area, in London, Greater Manchester, or the West Midlands. This focus on metropolitan areas has been to the cost of counties and those who live in them.
Half of our population is located in England’s counties; half of our overall economic output is created there too. They already provide accountable local leadership – in the form of elected councillors – that is readily recognisable by people who live there. Indeed, our commissioned polling found that only nine per cent of those surveyed thought that mayors should have more powers than county council leaders.
A number of county councils have become unitary authorities, and many other councils we spoke to are keen to follow suit. The opportunities of a single, more streamlined body that can speak with a unified voice for the whole county are enormous, both in terms of cost savings and more effective decision-making at scale. Where district councils too often act as a brake on development and strategic planning, unitary authorities provide a more responsive, joined-up form of local leadership across a larger population. Cornwall Council demonstrates this, bringing together representatives from health, business, transport, and local town/parish councils all round one table: the result is that Cornwall has seen the highest annual average increase in new homes in England since it became a unitary authority, all whilst saving £15.5m per year through reduced running costs. It has also been able to distribute grants during Covid faster than anywhere else.
The government must make it easier for more counties to follow this path, setting out a consistent approach to unitarisation for local leaders rather than relying on a ‘deal-by-deal’ basis. To embrace levelling up, they must start by giving local areas the means to pursue this agenda themselves – from housing and planning to infrastructure, from skills and employment to health and social care. Instead of the current patchwork system, a new, more effective form of local governance is necessary to unlock regional growth and drive our economic recovery. If, where previously there have been only promises, the Prime Minister wants action on local devolution, then it is time to make counties count.