In politics, they say timing is everything.
Today the County Councils Network releases a new report that speaks directly to the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda; a programme that will be fleshed out further in next week’s Budget.
The origins of the need to level up are rooted in globalisation, exacerbated by the financial crash, and partly manifested in the Brexit vote. For those not living in London, or in the centre of the major cities, it is difficult to see the fruits of a global and increasingly technological and services economy, but easy to feel investment in their public services is insufficient.
Levelling up the ‘red wall’ areas, such Bolsover in Derbyshire, is hugely important. However, this agenda cannot be narrowly confined to Northern and Midlands towns. County areas contain hugely diverse communities, each with their own socio-political challenges: encompassing deprived towns, rural and coastal communities to former manufacturing hotbeds, to places where young people leave and never return.
As such the levelling up agenda needs to focus on these places alongside the areas that have been in the media limelight. Take, for example the key issues that have contributed to these issues in our communities that is revealed in our report, produced by Grant Thornton.
Economic growth in county areas has lagged behind the national average over the last five years, workplace productivity is lower than the national average in the bulk of county areas, wages have not kept pace with rises in other parts of the country, and digital and physical infrastructure investment has been channelled unfairly to the major cities. These issues are as relevant to Teignmouth in the South West to Workington in the North West.
From speaking to my fellow county leaders, recognising these issues has only made us more ambitious to deliver a step change for our communities, and to contribute to the national economy.
Grant Thornton’s research has shown that despite the left-behind nature of many county areas, and despite policy and resource being directed unfairly to the cities, counties have stepped up to the plate; working to maximise the tools they have at their disposal.
The report demonstrates that county authorities are so much more than social care authorities. Between 2015 and 2019, the 36 councils in CCN membership were responsible for 58% of the growth-related spend in county areas. This makes those authorities the main players in economic growth in county areas. Yet at the same time, their importance goes further than this. As Grant Thornton argues, perhaps a more significant role played by county authorities is the influence they exert.
A key facet of their report is identifying that different places require different solutions, often taking the lead in establishing long-term growth visions for their areas. This involves bringing together key public sector partners and councils in setting out economic frameworks and a shared vision for the future, one where clear investment decisions can be made, tailored to place.
The scale of counties serves a dual purpose: they know their areas best, and where investment and innovation are needed, and have the size and resources to be the lead communicator for an area when lobbying the government or business.
This is crucial when considering the government is set to prioritise investment into left-behind communities and empower areas with the Devolution White Paper. A key recommendation from Grant Thornton is that the white paper should devolve significant powers and budgets to county authorities to assist in the levelling-up agenda. If devolution has worked in the North and West Midlands, then there is no reason this should not be expanded to counties, shaped around the strong governance already in place.
Elsewhere, Grant Thornton outlines several important but hugely significant recommendations to change our communities for the better: the formal introduction of Growth Boards to set out a clear place-based approach to investment in county areas.
Separately, the report argues that responsibility for strategic planning be given to county councils. This should ensure that shared visions for county areas equates to practical steps so that communities are given the infrastructure necessary to deal with population growth, alongside a greater focus on the right development, in the right places.
If the government gives us the tools, implements these structural changes, and sets out a fairer distribution of investment, then county authorities can be the key player in the levelling up agenda. If done right, this agenda would move beyond overly-simple north-south divides and would focus on all areas that require expenditure.
If the government wants to truly level-up England, it needs to power up county authorities.
Cllr Barry Lewis, economic growth spokesperson for the County Councils Network