The Prime Minister has signalled that the Government will adopt a more flexible approach devolution in England, saying “we need to re-write the rulebook”, with new deals for the counties.
In a ‘Levelling-Up’ speech in the West Midlands, Boris Johnson said: “There is no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we have devolved to city leaders so that they can take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes.
“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs, and they are working with them every day and of course you can see risk and the catch in all this, we have to learn lessons of the last 50 years.”
The PM said the Government would not, however, be proceeding with a one size fits all template.
“One possibility is a directly elected mayor for individual counties but there are other possibilities. We could devolve power for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses,” he suggested.
“Come to us with a plan for strong accountable leadership and we will give you the tools to change your area for the better, and it can be done, because there is no intrinsic reason why one part of this country should be fated to decline or indeed fated to succeed.”
Three counties presently have a devolution deal – Cornwall, Northumberland, and Cambridgeshire.
The County Councils Network welcomed the Prime Minister’s speech. Cllr Martin Hill, Devolution and Levelling-Up Spokesperson, said: “Counties contain some of the most prosperous places in England, but they are also home to some of the least socially mobile and deprived communities in the country, whilst others play host to isolated and rural coastal communities or former manufacturing towns.
“That’s why the County Councils Network has led calls for levelling up and devolution to reach all four corners of England, and we strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s speech today. His commitment to devolution to counties recognises the importance of our places, and the need to empower local leaders to successfully deliver the levelling up agenda.
Cllr Hill added: “Local areas should be able to decide the most appropriate devolution arrangements for counties, and ministers must deliver a flexible approach through the forthcoming Levelling-Up White Paper. Levelling-up the left-behind areas in counties can only be achieved if county councils and unitary authorities, working with their partners, are given the same devolved powers as urban areas and are put in the driving seat of delivering change and we are pleased that this looks firmly on the table.”
Responding to the speech Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association said: "Over the last decade, England has taken steps towards greater devolution, but areas outside the city regions have remained stuck in the 'devolution slow lane' and the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world.
"The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the strength of councils' local leadership and the benefits that come from national and local government working together in partnership."
Cllr Jamieson added: "As we look towards securing a recovery that works for all, now is the right time to bring forward an ambitious new devolution settlement that gives councils the powers and funding they need to address regional inequality, tackle concentrations of deprivation and make towns and communities across England attractive places to live, work and visit.
"We support the Prime Minister's refreshed commitment to turbo-charge this agenda and we look forward to working with councils and government to make this ambition a reality."