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Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council

Levelling up, seen initially as a nebulous, impressionistic concept, is starting to take shape. In his speech in July, the Prime Minister emphasised the importance of counties as well as traditional urban and industrial areas, in achieving it. Michael Gove heads a new levelling up department. The White Paper is reportedly imminent.

The Guardian is not the typical place for a Conservative government’s foundational text, but Neil O’Brien’s October article established four key elements: strong local leadership; growth in the private sector and in living standards; extending opportunity and good public services; and restoring local pride.

Why did the Prime Minister put such a focus on counties? In part, because shire counties, even in the south east, are not homogeneously leafy and prosperous. The ‘core cities’ focus of much development and regeneration policy in recent decades has, whatever the other arguments in its favour, neglected smaller towns, rural and coastal areas.

In addition, counties can operate at a big, strategic scale while carrying a strong sense of identity and accountability. In some cases, though not all, they share boundaries with other major public services. It is a strong combination.

All of this is true in spades for us in Kent. With a peninsular geography, a history stretching back to a Saxon kingdom, its Garden of England identity and a population bigger than eleven US states, it is a big and distinctive place. People take pride in living here. Historic Kent – made up mostly of the Kent County Council area, but also Medway unitary authority – is coterminous with the emerging NHS Integrated Care System as well as police and fire.

And Kent has its own profound needs for levelling up. On most indicators, the county comes close to the national average. However, this average masks a gulf between centres of prosperity (many, though not all of them in the London hinterland) and deep deprivation, especially in a number of coastal communities. By levelling up living standards and life chances within Kent, we can not only provide a huge economic and social boost to local towns and communities; given the size and scale of the county, we can make a significant contribution to levelling up nationally.

So far, the small number of county deals that may be announced at the time of the White Paper have reportedly been quite individual and bespoke (full disclosure – Kent is not one of them, though like most counties we have been exploring the implications of levelling up and county deals with government). The White Paper should, however, establish more common parameters, even if there remain (as there should) elements that reflect distinct local needs and identity.

The building blocks of devolution deals seen in mayoral combined authorities provide a starting point: transport, business support and economic development, adult education. I would extend the latter much further into the wider area of skills; not only is this an area in which Kent has significant gaps to close, but the damaging effects of nationally driven policies and funding streams in undermining local collaboration and generating mismatched skills to the needs of local business are well documented. Locally, we have built strong partnerships that can deliver.

On transport, we need to deliver the shift from counties just being a highways authority to becoming a full transport authority. It is neither fair nor sensible that metropolitan areas are able to fully integrate transport when the need for better integration is starker in more rural areas, where a lack of affordable transport between towns and communities limits connectivity and economic opportunity, and sustains dependency on car usage for quality of life. For both transport and economic development, there is a need to switch to devolved funding settlements over a number of years rather than the current merry-go-round of bidding systems.

Delivery of infrastructure is also vital, even if a little separate from levelling up strictly defined. For counties (and especially a county such as Kent, which has had exceptionally high rates of housing growth) the detachment of planning and infrastructure over the last decade, and the funding and distribution of developer contributions have not worked.

Hopefully, the rethink of housing projections by the new Secretary of State will ease some of the pressure on south-eastern counties; but that remains to be seen, and where development does take place, the need to deliver properly funded infrastructure first, remains a clear articulated demand from our residents. The logical conclusion from all this is the need, not only for changes to the developer contribution regime, but for a more strategic approach to spatial planning.

Delivering on net zero and on climate change resilience and adaptation presents distinctive challenges in predominantly rural areas, ranging from the viability of public transport to vulnerability to flooding. Kent and Medway have developed robust and far-reaching plans, but a comprehensive approach to the issue will have to draw together transport, strategic planning, skills, economic development and more.

Finally, county deals should be the catalyst for a new strategic partnership between national government and local leadership, so that when a matter of local importance also has national significance, the two can address the issue together systematically.

For Kent, that is our border with the continent and the massive volume of trade, as well as passenger traffic that passes through it and across the Short Straits. This has been and remains a point of vulnerability for both the county and the country, seen most sharply (and for some Kent communities, traumatically) when the French authorities closed the border in the days before Christmas 2020.

National and local authorities worked together remarkably effectively to prepare for the end of Brexit transition. Now, however, there is no one deadline to work to, but a series of continuing changes at the border, and an ever-present vulnerability to disruption with some of the special measures and capacity available a year ago no longer in place.

That effective local-national operational partnership to deal with a specific event needs to take on a standing, strategic form. This can then develop the measures (in road and border infrastructure, lorry holding capacity and much else) to reduce the vulnerability of both Kent and the UK to shocks and disruptions in the Short Straits.

None of this simply makes asks of national government; it presents challenges for counties too, above all in terms of governance and capacity.

The first is sometimes taken as code for a directly elected or mayoral model. But it need not be so; some of the arguments (stability, convening power, accountability) seem to be set up against a straw man of weakly-led councils, perhaps under No Overall Control. The reality is that much council leadership is at least as stable and durable as national leadership (and much more so than typical ministerial tenure) and a large strategic authority can convene very effectively.

Less talked about is the question of capacity; that councils are able to discharge a stronger strategic role when they face huge budget and managerial pressures from demand-led services such as adult social care and children’s services. There is no simple answer to this, but councils have to make a conscious choice to commit money, time and thought to this when all those resources will feel more than spoken for already.

The corollary is that county deals have to be a relationship with the whole of government, not simply with individual departments; it is only through this that central government will be able to understand and support the choices that councils have to make.