County areas chase devo dream

By Heather Jameson and Dan Peters | 19 August 2021

County areas are lining up to strike one of the first tranche of devolution deals.

Far more authorities than expected are understood to have written to local government secretary Robert Jenrick ahead of last week’s deadline to express an interest.

There remains a lack of information about the nature of any deals though ministers have said they will need to demonstrate strong and accountable leadership, work across a sensible economic geography, improve efficiency and governance, include significant reform and be replicable across other areas.

One local government source said: ‘It is deeply unclear what the Government wants for the moment, but they are incredibly open to ideas.’

Interest from the sector is thought to have been boosted by the Government’s explicit declaration that local government reorganisation was not a prerequisite for devolution and that councils should avoid spending cash on unitary proposals.

A letter from the District Councils’ Network to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen by The MJ, read: ‘This means we can all focus on delivery rather than debate, participating in devolution deals without looking over our shoulders at the prospect of local government reorganisation.’

Areas that are expected to bid for a devolution deal include North Yorkshire, Surrey, Suffolk, East Riding and Hull, Devon and Hampshire.

Hampshire CC leader, Cllr Keith Mans, said: ‘It’s an opportunity we must pursue at pace.’

A further band of county areas are holding fire until after publication of the Levelling up White Paper and are likely to bid for later deals.

They are believed to include Staffordshire, Kent, Dorset, and East and West Sussex.

Central Bedfordshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire and Northamptonshire are not expected to be among those at the front of the queue.

In Lincolnshire, the county council and districts have written to Mr Jenrick separately expressing their interest, but they will not be in a position to get together until next month to thrash out a joint vision.

Any deal would cover the districts, county and two unitaries of North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire.

Lord Porter, leader of South Holland DC in Lincolnshire, said COVID-19 had proved counties and districts can work together, and a devolution deal could lead to councils cooperating more and sharing services.

But he warned the Government’s financial position may lead to disappointment for those going into a devolution deal expecting a cash bonanza.

Lord Porter added: ‘I don’t think there will be more money, but there will be freedoms and powers.’

Taking a different route, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Nottingham and Derby have proposed the creation of an East Midlands combined authority though separate county deals could be struck if agreement cannot be reached.

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Whitehall Politics Policy Devolution Combined Authority Reorganisation District Councils Network Gary Porter Robert Jenrick