Devo and Christmas ghosts of past, present and future

By Alun Hughes | 14 December 2023

‘Tis the season for Christmas cliches. And on that note, whilst there may be no obvious link between Dickens and devolution, it is fair to say that an increasing number of county authorities have been visited by the ghosts of Christmas past and present over the last 18 months.

And as we look towards 2024, many more County Councils Network (CCN) members will be wondering what the ghost of Christmas yet to come will bring in the way of devolution deals.

But first, if you’re sitting comfortably, come with me to the summer of 2022 and the ghost of Christmas past – Greg Clark. It was under his second spell as Levelling-up Secretary that the first bona-fide county devolution deal since 2015 was signed with North Yorkshire, with an agreement for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire swiftly following.

It was also significant for the CCN, which had long argued on behalf of its members that the government must not overlook England’s counties in its local growth agenda. In addition, the network’s member councils also displayed flexibility in adopting a mayor or directly-elected leader to secure agreement, despite some concerns these individuals were more suited to urban areas.

With those twin announcements in the East Midlands and Yorkshire , the dial was decisively shifted on devolution: going from a very urban-centric policy to one that has focused more on empowering local leaders in England’s counties. More agreements for Norfolk, Suffolk, Cornwall, Durham and Northumberland followed suit in 2022 with Michael Gove’s return as Levelling-up Secretary maintaining the momentum.

However, the announcement of the expanded North East devolution deal in December 2022 was the last of such agreements until recently.  Whilst many of the original nine areas who begun negotiations with government in summer 2022 had agreed deals, specific local circumstances had led to stumbling blocks for some of this cohort. The CCN worked hard to make its members’ case to ministers and officials to try to break the impasse and the Autumn Statement yielded a breakthrough, with the coming of the  ghost of Christmas present: Jeremy Hunt.

The Chancellor not only announced further mayoral deals for the East Riding of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, but also that the Government wanted to agree new ‘Level 2’ deals, which would devolve substantial powers and funding, albeit not as comprehensive as available under a Level 3 deal with a directly-elected individual. In addition, he announced a new ‘Level 4’ to the Devolution Framework to build on existing deals: another CCN ask.

This announcement is significant and should open the door for a major expansion of county devolution in the first few months of 2024. Such momentum is crucial if the Government is to deliver on its pledge to offer a deal to every part of the country by 2030. The CCN is currently supporting a cohort of councils in discussions with government, with the hope that deals agreed are a foundation that can be built on over time.

That latter point is important, as 2024 is also set to be a General Election year and so the devolution ghost of Christmas yet to come  is likely to be either Sunak or Starmer.  Whoever it is, we can expect devolution to continue to be rolled out, and CCN has long argued that it makes sense to lock in your devolution geography now and build on that. 

Similarly, to those who complain that the devolution deal is ‘thin gruel; and that they ‘don’t want any more’ (to mix my Dickens’ metaphors), we would say look at Manchester.  Their first deal in 2009 saw no directly elected mayor and limited powers devolved in relation to housing, planning and skills.  Fast forward to 2023 and Greater Manchester, as a trailblazer, has a new, department-style single settlement from the next spending review period, certainty over their ability to retain 100% of their business rates and increasing influence over the levers of growth.

Obviously, any new administration will have its own ideas about devolution and how best to stimulate local growth. But as a starting point for any ideological view on devolution, the building blocks are already there.

County geographies not only make economic and strategic sense, but these are the structures that have enabled over ten deals to be announced over the last 18 months: not an insignificant number. If a future government wants to quickly and easily devolve local powers to local residents, then county geographies offer the best route to deliver that aim outside of England’s urban conurbations.

So, whilst we can expect to see a clutch of ‘Level 2’ deals announced in the coming months, attention will then focus on the next government. We view this as an opportunity to do more rather than a risk of doing less: with greater flexibility, potentially, on directly-elected individuals and powers available, further fiscal devolution and innovation, and ensuring that the Local Enterprise Partnership transition is as seamless as possible.

The last 18 months has shown the art of the possible for county devolution. Over the next 12 months we will be making the strongest possible case to the ghost of Christmas yet to come  that they can go even further.  

Alun Hughes, Senior Policy Advisor, Economic Growth and Devolution, County Councils Network

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